Accent and dialect (like Doric Scots) lend colour to language- and learning opportunities to linguists. (Image from freeimages.com)

The Accent Challenge : Develop 3D Listening in your Foreign Languages

Of all the characteristic features of regions, few lend as much colour and hue as local accent. And, fresh from a weekend in North East Scotland, I’ve had another chance to ponder this as I soak up the distinct Doric dialect.

In many ways, my continued adventures with Doric Scots remind me of my experiences as a language learner ‘in the wild’. There are few things more challenging and frustrating – yet more galvanising for your language skills – than exposure to a range of accents and dialects.

Experience with accent and dialect is extremely useful to the language learner. But that doesn’t make them an easy ride!

Baptism by fire

As a languages undergraduate at university, I must have been a stickler for punishment. So fascinated was I by dialects, that I threw myself directly into their path. I sought out every opportunity to experience all the regional colours of German.

Naturally, it surprised nobody when I picked Austria for my year abroad.

If ever there was a baptism by fire, it was those first two weeks in Austria. Did I think I could speak German? Well, two weeks of standing baffled at supermarket counters, train stations and other accent-stippled social situations took me down a peg or two. It was like a whole other language!

But, slowly, things fell into place. I gained an awareness of how German words change in Austrian mouths. I layered my German vocabulary with an extra dimension, a geometry of sound changes with a real regularity as well as a perceived unpredictability to my initial, untrained ear. Gradually, that unpredictability turned into familiarity, and Austrian German was a stranger no more.

My German listening skills were all the better for it. If you can work out how Austrian sounds map onto Hochdeutsch, you have the skills to develop a comprehension of other accents and dialects, too. German pronunciation ceases to be a single equivalent sound for a written word. It leaps from the page and exists in multiple forms and dimensions.

Accent training gave me this 3D awareness of the phonology of German.

The lesson of accent

First and foremost, accent has this important lesson for linguists: expect the unpredictable, but learn to seek the order within it.

No foreign language course can prepare you for all variants of a language. Eventually, unless you limit yourself to purely written material, you will come up against real world variation. But accent teaches us to expect this unpredictable element (and remind us that preparing for it is a vital skill).

What’s more, once you learn to spot the patterns in a new configuration of your foreign language, you develop a much closer relationship with it. It is no longer flat and grayscale, but full colour multidimensional. Like a bird’s eye view, ease with accent comprehension gives you multiple perspectives over the languages you learn.

We can see an analogue to this in category learning. We might learn what a cat is from a single image of a cat, for example. However, over time, we learn to associate cat with a slightly more general set of characteristics that can vary from animal to animal (breed, colour, tailed or tailless, etc.).

In the same way, an unfamiliar accent helps you to learn that the category of sound X can vary (vowel quality, length and so on), although it still counts as sound X. German Katze might sound like Kotze in Austria, but it’s still that same old cat.

Fighting through frustration

At first, the road to mastering this skill of 3D perception can be incredibly frustrating. We spend many hours on our favourite subject, learning vocabulary, phrases, grammar. When we are faced with real life, unfettered language, we feel that we should understand, thanks to all those hours of study. But when unfamiliar accent renders that a tricky task, the “but I should know this!” feeling can be a tough experience.

But fear not. There are a couple of solid ways to gain exposure to regional variation before it gets to that face-to-face test.

Podcasts from places

Thanks to the media explosion, you can easily find podcasts from any place these days. The accessibility of podcast platforms for smaller (sometimes completely independent or individual) content creators means that variety has never been so ubiquitous.

If you are studying the standard language of a particular region, then seek out content from other locations. For German, check out podcast offerings from the Austrian broadcaster ORF, for instance. Likewise, Iberian Spanish learners might check out multiple programmes from Latin America (and vice versa), with France-Canada providing another dichotomy for French learners.

Teachers far and wide

The notion of foreign language teachers who speak regional variants is not an uncontroversial one. I know learners who insist on their teachers being bona fide ‘standard’ speakers of the language (whatever ‘standard language’ might mean!). And, undoubtedly, a sound knowledge of what is regarded as standard and ‘correct’ language is important in an instructor.

But teacher-speakers of a regional variant will have both a knowledge of the dominant version of a tongue, as well as an everyday command of their spoken variant. The best of both worlds!

Personally, I’ve purposefully sought out and learnt with teachers of Norwegian whose everyday language is heavily marked by regional differences. As experienced teachers, they are both aware of standard Bokm√•l, and able to temper their accent if comprehension requires. This kind of purposeful exposure to Norwegian variety was invaluable preparation for the dizzying patchwork of dialects in Norway.

Plain speaking

You might fear that this fervour for accents and dialects might have a negative effect on your own speaking. After all, developing your own voice in a foreign language is taxing enough. Won’t all that variation just confuse the brain?

From experience, I know it is perfectly possible to dabble in dialect whilst maintaining a pretty standard pronunciation yourself. In Austria, my own German accent was not drastically affected in the long term. After all, I’d spent some years learning vanilla Hochdeutsch in school, college and university, and returned to those environments after my year in the wilderness. Plain old German German remained my default mode!

Conversely, you might choose to adopt some of those regional characteristics under certain circumstances. As people can be proud of where they come from, we linguists can be proud of where we polished our skills. Often, I’ll prefer to say schauen instead of sehen in German, just to put that stamp of Austrianness onto my sentences.

Accent and regional variation do represent a challenge to the learner. But with some preparation, you can reap the benefits from charging at this hurdle. 3D listening in a foreign language is an excellent superpower to have as a linguist, after all.

Variety adds a bit of a colour to your learning. (Image from freeimages.com)

Five ways to maintain variety in your language learning

Routine and regularity are cornerstones of language learning. But if your structure is too rigid, you might find yourself tiring of the same old, same old. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to work some variety into your language learning plan to keep things fresh.

There is evidence to suggest that a more varied learning approach might prevent context-bound recall. One stock study of Psych 101 classes shows how we remember more when we are in the same environment the material was learnt in. Of course, students can leverage that when preparing for exams. But perhaps an even better approach would be to employ variety to avoid binding your knowledge to specific circumstances. After all, you want those words to flow wherever you are, right?

Let’s take an example to illustrate the point. Do you, like me, sometimes find it easy to recall a word in Duolingo, phone in hand, but struggle to dredge it from memory in conversation? It could be that your mental record of that vocab item is bound to that specific context of using an app on your phone.

So, variety is key. But how can you hit that magic balance between routine and variation to free your recall?

Different platforms

We all have those favourite e-learning tools that we turn to first. Anki, Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise count amongst the most popular quick fixes that we can all build into our daily language task list. And they are excellent at their job; there is no need to use any of these favourites any less.

But instead, we can vary how – or, more specifically, on what – we use them.

Many language learning platforms like these are multi-platform, so you can play them on a variety of devices. Duolingo, for example, can be played on your phone, tablet or on any computer via the browser. Anki, Babbel and Memrise, too, can be played on a device or on the web.

If you always play on the same platform, change that up a little. Work through your Anki cards on the computer one day, and on your phone the next. Vary¬†when you access it, too. Sometimes I will bring up Anki on my laptop during the day, for example, in a few spare moments between work tasks. At other times, I’ll use the mobile app while I’m waiting for a train.

Don’t always make your language app work a phone-in-hand learning session.¬†

Different times, different places

Just as simple a route to varying your routine is to change your environment. Mobile apps make this easy – you can learn anywhere you like. But even book-based learning can be mobile if you always make sure you have some course material in your bag wherever you go. If you find yourself with a spare half an hour in town, find a coffee shop and settle down with a chapter and a cappuccino.

Flexible resources help here, too. You may have both the paper and PDF / electronic versions of a resource, and these lend themselves to different environments. Leverage that by alternating between them, studying them at different times and in different places. The very fact that you can study the same resource in different formats is a boost to variety in itself.

Keep your scenery constantly changing, and your brain will not have a chance to bind recall with context-based clues.

Veer off course

If you doggedly stick to exactly the same learning materials every day, every week, then feelings of stagnation soon creep in. Pushing through the same course for weeks on end can seem like wading through sludge.

What to do when the beaten path gets muddy? Take a detour. You can achieve this in language learning by having a couple of courses on the go simultaneously. For instance, you might choose to work through both Colloquial French and Teach Yourself Complete French as part of your plan. Throw the new (and excellent) French Tutor into the mix too, and you have a range of course materials you can switch tracks between. Bored of one? Switch to the other for a lesson or two.

The joy of this is not limited just to the change of paper scenery. Different books explain things in different ways. And, given a range of explanations for the same grammatical rules, we often understand better.

It’s like viewing an object from several aspects. Together, those different views give you a much clearer mental picture of the object.

Dare to be non-linear

On that tack, whoever decreed that everybody must work through materials from cover to cover, never deviating from the plan? Naturally, course materials are written with linear progression in mind, and you need some structure. But it doesn’t need to be done to the letter.

From time to time, it does not hurt to jump forward a little. It can be quite exciting to sneak a peek at later chapters of a book. It’s like stealing a glance at what is to come in your learning journey. It reminds me a little of finding out what the ‘big kids’ are doing in the years above you at school. There’s a delicious anticipation about it, a sense of “so this is what I’ll be doing when I’m¬†even better at my language!”.

In many ways, however, it is a completely legitimate way of pre-preparing yourself to learn future material even more effectively. By breaking away and racing ahead, even just for a moment, your brain can get a little head start. And, by the time you come to study that material for real, who knows what subconscious cogitations it has been subject to? You will positively run with it!

Back to the future

Breaking away from the linear is as valid for electronic resources as it is for book-based courses. For example, Duolingo offers more than just the familiar step-by-step, topic-based tree. It also features a Practise section, which selects a random set of words and phrases to test you on. There is no way to tell which topic Duolingo will throw at you, except that it will be one you have studied.

Here, it is about jumping backwards rather than forwards, offering an opportunity to strengthen material you have already covered. Rather than choosing Рand therefore expecting Рa particular topic, you hand the choice over to the platform. How about that for a bit of unpredictability? Give that a whirl regularly, and your brain will benefit from handling more unexpected material.

In the wild

Our learning resources and plans, of course, necessarily represent a safe bubble of predictability. This is no surprise; nobody wants to be overwhelmed when they first start learning a foreign language.

However, you can carefully stage-manage your gradual release into the wild of everyday language use. After all, there is no greater variety than the real world. A mindful choice of media materials like podcasts and news sites can be a safe dip of the toe into the waters of real-life language.

For a once-weekly dose of current affairs variety, I like the News In Slow … range for French, German, Italian and French students. The podcasts are free, although you can subscribe for extra support resources too, if you prefer to layer some structure on top of that. The language is slow and simple enough to get the gist as a beginner, but current enough to feel relevant.

If your language is not amongst that list, you can often find news programmes in your target language by trawling national broadcaster and other media sites. The Icelandic television company RÚV, for instance, has a daily news programme for kids called Krakkafréttir. And for Norwegian (Bokmål), learners can take advantage of KlarTale.no, a news resource aimed at readers with dyslexia and speakers of Norwegian as a second language.

As always with authentic texts, a bit of Googling will go a long way. I recently unearthed a treasure trove of simplified Icelandic texts intended for school learners. The authors probably never realised how useful they would be for those learning Icelandic overseas!

Gradual exposure to real-world, real-time resources will definitely keep your linguist brain on its toes.

Mix it up, max it out

I hope that the above points convince you that a combined structure-variety approach will maximise what you get out of your learning time. We are not learning robots, and mechanical, unchanging and unbending routine will do no human being much good in the long run.

Follow the variety principle, and keep your learning fresh!

A bear hunting resources. Probably not language learning ones, though. From freeimages.com.

We’re going on a resource hunt! Finding language learning freebies on educational sites

We’re going on a bear hunt, sing the children in Michael Rosen’s children’s book of the same name, gorgeously illustrated by Helen Oxenbury. And that’s what much of my recent language work has felt like – if the bears are target language resources out in the wild of the web (a stretch of a metaphor, I know).

The children’s book reference isn’t by accident, as I have recently held in mind a recent podcast that suggested a lack of utility in them for language learning. The key argument is the use of low frequency vocabulary and lack of real-world application. Resources for youngsters, the advice goes, is the¬†last thing a language learner should be plumping for.

However, I tend to disagree on two points – firstly, that this material isn’t useful, and secondly, that it features low-use, unhelpful vocabulary and structures. My own ‘bear hunt’ this week has produced some brilliant evidence of this.

Fun factor

First of all, children’s books are flippin’ fun! And fun means motivation, and motivation means staying power and progress. If you’ve found certain young adult books rewarding in your native language (like Harry Potter, for example), it’s a¬†big carrot to get you reading in the target one.

But secondly, not all children’s books are about low frequency, fantasy words. To that end, my resource trawl turned up a¬†very serendipitous find. It was a prize that convinced me more than ever of the utility of books for youngsters in your language learning arsenal.

Resource hunt bonanza

I am always on the lookout for useful digital media in my target languages. This week, on a regular trek through Google, I stumbled across an absolute goldmine. It was the website of Iceland’s education department, Menntam√°lastofnun.

A bit dry and official, you might be thinking. But in fact, the site is a treasure trove. Scores of school textbooks are available to download for free in PDF format on subjects from history to maths. Incredibly, for many of them, entire audiobook versions are also downloadable. Reams of reading¬†and listening material, pitched at young adults; it’s almost too good to be true!

Not just stories

The key point here is that children’s books are¬†not just about fantasy stories. They include non-fiction books that cover many aspects of life, from the prosaic to the historical and cultural. And that setting is a vital part of any language learning project.

Faced with such a richness of reading, it’s important to go for what you love. In particular, a set of books on Icelandic history, aimed at Icelandic school students, caught my eye. Written for the average Icelandic 10-year-old, the syntax isn’t complicated. But the ideas, constructions and concepts are incredibly useful for learning about Iceland. And, crucially, they are excellent practice for talking about why I like learning Icelandic myself.

Even much simpler books aimed at even younger students have their place. This primary school level book on the kitchen, for example, could never be accused of a lack of real-world application. Stuffed with food and cooking words, it makes for excellent prep for shopping and cooking in Iceland!

Spoilt for choice?

Admittedly, my Icelandic textbook find is a stroke of luck largely thanks to choosing a ‘small’ world language to study. The pressure on the government of a tiny country like Iceland to support the language is relatively high. In larger countries, there are any number of competing educational resource companies. Each is trying to make money from the textbook publishing market. In that environment, freebies are a rare and precious thing. (Note: that isn’t to say that there aren’t¬†some tidbits, like this free guide to linguistics from Routledge.)

It is true that we are spoilt as Icelandic learners. It’s even possible to get full, official courses in Icelandic as a foreign language for free online.¬†But that isn’t to say that a bit of hard digging on your own resource hunt won’t turn up educational goods in other languages.

True, books for youngsters may not always accurately model everyday, face-to-face language in the target language. But there is more to language than face-to-face use. And these resources make a captivating way in to many aspects of the target language culture, as well as wonderful motivators.

Have you found similar caches of free resources for school students in your target language? Let us know in the comments!

Headphones - perhaps to listen to Glossika with! From freeimages.com

Getting Polyglossic with Glossika : Making Language Learning *Massive*

I’ve always liked the ‘mass sentences’ approach for supplementing and boosting your language learning. The idea is that you take a¬†huge corpus of quality, target language sentences, and use them as your source material. It’s a quick route to¬†massive exposure.¬†It’s the idea behind Tatoeba, which is a fantastic, crowd-sourced resource. But, more commercially, it’s also the approach of Glossika, a popular resource in the polyglot community. I finally got round to giving it a whirl lately to see what all the fuss was about.

Glossika has been around for a while already. They are available in a¬†very impressive array of languages (think: Routledge’s Colloquial series but for mass sentences). Until recently, they were chiefly available as book / CD sets, like this level 1 Japanese course. However, the materials are now available for subscription through Glossika’s website, making it much easier to trial and access their range.

Now, one thing that always put me off was the price. Glossika courses are on the expensive side, approaching the Rosetta Stone level of pricing. At anything up to ¬£100 per level on Amazon¬†for the physical media right now, and with three levels in the core languages, that’s a hefty price to pay for the promise of fluency. The website, however, now adds a more affordable way to access the courses at $24.99 a month (billed annually, currently around ¬£19).

Still, this comes in more expensive than other popular, paid web language platforms like Babbel¬†(as little as ¬£4.75 a month) and Memrise Pro (from $2.50 / about ¬£2 a month). Admittedly, Glossika’s overheads are probably a fair bit higher, with that¬†vast amount of native speaker recording they must have to do. But what benefits do you get for that extra cash?

What Glossika does well

I’ve now spent just over a week using the website, performing repeated Icelandic repetitions. Remarkably, I have already noticed an improvement in my speaking confidence. I think this comes down to two things.

Accent and prosody

The Glossika method is a¬†fantastic way to train your ‘muscle memory’ for speaking in the target language. The listen-repeat method is a blunt instrument, and as old as the hills, but there’s little better for perfecting your accent.

As some of the sentences are quite lengthy, the system is also great for internalising prosody, or the natural rhythm, of your target language. This has the knock-on effect of improving your listening skills, too. After a week of Glossika, I felt that my comprehension of spoken Icelandic had edged forward.

Language patterns

The material also hammers into your head reams and reams of model sentences. On the face of it, you might take this as passive, parrot-fashion learning. In fact, though, the sheer number of them facilitates the pattern-matching parts of your brain. Tricky, colloquial turns of phrase start to become more familiar, and you start to pick up phrases that can act as adaptable frameworks for more spontaneous speaking.

Icelandic (much like German, Polish and Russian) can sometimes collapse into a blur of declensions and conjugations for the learner. The language’s particular mountain to climb (in my experience) is adjectival endings, which seem as numerous as the stars. Through a week of sentence modelling with Glossika, some of the trickier ones are¬†finally falling into place through repeated exposure.

Glossika gripes

Nothing is perfect, of course. A couple of things stand out as needing attention and improvement in Glossika, namely:

Voice choice

Some of the voices aren’t the most mellifluous. The Icelandic voice grated on me a bit, and there were no alternative options (male/female voice, for example, like the uTalk software has done so successfully in the past). That goes especially for the smaller languages, where there is no variety of voice at all. If you don’t like the voice, you’re stuck with it.

Unnecessary conversions

One very weird quirk is that the translators have often opted to convert prices and measurements, quite unnecessarily. One example gives the English as ‘a buck, a Euro’, then gives the Icelandic as ‘120 kronur’. For a start, this is never going to stay accurate for very long, given currency fluctuations. And for another, what is the point? Surely it would be better to make both sentences reflect the Icelandic currency, give that it is an Icelandic course? Just odd.

Also strange is the choice of names and places for the sentences. I assume Glossika have tried to keep the sentence corpus similar between languages. This results in a slightly international flavour to people’s names and geographical locations given. That said, it would be nice to have a few Icelandic names and places thrown into the course. Instead of Brian, Mary, Madrid and Seattle, let’s try¬†√Āsgeir, Hafd√≠s, Akureyri and √ćsafj√∂r√įur!

Alternatives to Glossika

The gripes are minor, though. On the whole, Glossika does seem to justify its expensive in terms of results. But, if you are still unconvinced about shelling out, there are a ways to get a similar sentence kick elsewhere.

Phrasebooks with audio

For a cheap, basic raft of target language sentences, you could use one of several tourist phrasebooks with included audio. The Rough Guide phrasebooks are pretty comprehensive, and a bargain at under a fiver (like their French phrasebook for just over ¬£3!). Even better is the fact that the Rough Guide team has made the accompanying audio files available for free online, at this link. Perhaps not as massive as Glossika, but that’s scores of spoken sentences you can start with straight away.

Similarly, the In-Flight series by Living Language (such as In-Flight Polish) are handy and available for under a tenner each. They are so similar to the Glossika format that they almost double as a taster of the method.

Other sources of mass sentences

If it’s sheer numbers of sentences you’re after, look no further than Anki’s shared decks. Several users have created decks based on Tatoeba’s source material, some with sound included. And if not, no fear. With silent decks, you could try the AwesomeTTS text-to-speech add-on for Anki.

Finally, for the benefits of repetition and mimicry for your accent and ‘language muscle memory’, shadowing podcasts can provide a boost. For sure, podcasts are more chaotic than Glossika, lacking the didactic structure. With podcasts, you may have¬†no clue what will come up.¬†But there again, that unpredictability is a good mirror of real-world language.

Glossika – an unpolished gem worth a go

Certainly, you can replicate elements of the Glossika system using other materials. However, none of them quite have that large-scale, ‘sit back and soak it up’ feel that Glossika does.¬†A very solid four stars from me, as those plus points¬†far outweigh the niggles.¬†With 1000 free repetitions (at least a fair few sessions) available for trial on the website, it’s definitely worth a test drive!

The world is even more accessible today, with a range of foreign language TV available online.

Netflix’s foreign language TV bonanza

The Internet truly has made the world smaller. That’s lucky for linguists; a raft of foreign language TV is instantly at hand. Anglophone subscription TV services have been a little slow to catch up, but are finally opening up to content in languages other than English. Netflix in particular has done language lovers proud, even producing several non-English projects like Dark and 3%. Here are a few of the overseas gems I’ve been enjoying recently.

German 🇩🇪

Dark

Mysterious and other-worldly, there’s more than a touch of Grimm to the production of the Netflix offering Dark. At once disturbing, mysterious and intriguing, it’s already getting a lot of positive criticism. If you liked the Netflix smash hit Stranger Things, you might well get sucked in to this¬†very quickly!

Icelandic 🇮🇸

Hrauni√į (The Lava Field)

This crime series puts a uniquely Icelandic slant on the Scandi noir genre. Full of impressive, sweeping landscape shots, it boasts a dark storyline and some very quirky characters.

Norwegian¬†🇳🇴

Nobel

Gritty and hard-hitting, this series follows a Norwegian Special Forces officer in Afghanistan. It can make for difficult viewing, but provides a vehicle for some stunning performances by the cast.

Portuguese (Brazil) 🇧🇷

3%

I’m not actually learning Portuguese, but I enjoyed this series so much that it deserves a mention. Set in a dystopian near-future, young adults battle it out to reach ‘the offshore’, a paradise reserved for the few. It makes for compelling viewing. And if you get hooked, no problem: a second series is in the making.

On the list

These are just the few that I’m watching right now. Others are on my list to get round to on Netflix, including:

That’s plenty of watching hours in the pipeline – hopefully Netflix will continue to support international projects like these, both through funding / production, and simply making other series available across their platforms. Bring on the binge!

A man lying on the grass - a great anxiety buster!

Just chill! Anxiety busting tips for practical language use

French was never my forte.

Still, I recently had the opportunity to use my French again after years of neglect. I’ve long jibed about my French being rubbish, basic and broken. Doing my French down has become a running joke in my life. Despite hitting an A grade in GCSE French at 16, I’ve done little to keep it going since. In fact, some of the only occasions I’ve used it have been to speak what I call ‘comedy French’ in the office. That’s 25 years of francophobia!

Still, a language is a language, and I was happy to dig out the French on a recent trip. I didn’t expect miracles, and was pretty lazy about polishing up my skills before travelling. You could say that I didn’t really care much about being ‘good’; the bit I had was enough. Zero expectations, zero anxiety.

Language magic… When you least expect it

Surprisingly, a bit of magic happened on that little trip. Somehow, despite my insistence that my French was ‘rubbish’, I was communicating. I was asking questions and understanding the answers. And after mulling over some explanations for that, I’ve learnt some important things about practical foreign language use.

The crux of it is this: I went about the everyday speaking French and¬†not caring about being perfect. Not pressuring myself to be grammatically flawless, not demanding native-level, colloquial phrases from myself. I knew what I knew, and I would make it work for me, regardless of the gaps. I was even making up phrases that would turn out to be correct later on, like ‘en ce cas‘ (in this case).

Performance anxiety

Now in my strongest foreign language, German, I¬†never experience that kind of friction-free movement. I have a degree in German; I’m¬†supposed to be great at it, darn it! So, as a result, I place a huge pressure on myself to be perfect. It’s nearly always an impossible challenge at the best of times, and not surprising that it leads to language anxiety. I’ll beat myself up over even the silliest mistakes and trip-ups.

Not only that, but it dawned on me that I’ve been taking my German¬†far too seriously over the years. Just compare: in German, I regularly listen to heavyweight news podcasts. In French, on the other hand, I have fun in the office saying silly things to make my colleagues laugh. Which one seems like a better way to build a positive experience in a foreign language by stealth?

Just chill!

Now the answer here is not to disengage from serious study or stop caring about a language. However, there is something in this French lesson that can benefit our ‘proper’ languages. You can boil it down to two rules:

  1. Don’t worry about mistakes – just communicate.
  2. Have fun with it!

Common sense, perhaps; oft-repeated, definitely. But extremely easy to forget when a language means a lot to you. Let this post be a reminder to me of that Рand, I hope, a signpost for others to ward them off that anxious path!

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 clich√©, 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 Рyour 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.

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 ‚ā¨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 (‚ā¨6.00) and DDR Museum (‚ā¨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 Рessential 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 hei√üt 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.

Headphones - great for listening to a podcast or ten!

Podcast essentials: mining overseas charts

As a podcast junkie, I’m always looking for new sources and recommendations for foreign language programmes. So I was particularly excited to happen across the website iTunesCharts.net recently.

The site provides iTunes charts across a range of regional stores, including France, Germany and Spain. It lists all digital media, including songs, albums and TV programmes. But most usefully for linguaphiles, it compiles charts of the most popular podcasts in each country too.

It is possible to find this information yourself by switching your store region in ¬†iTunes. However, iTunesCharts.net is quicker and easier if you study any of the clutch of ‘mainstream’ languages: French, German, Italian or Spanish.

Listening material that switches you on

The site addresses a common issue for linguists: finding¬†interesting material in the target language. Not dry, sanitised language for learners, but engaging, entertaining programming in topics that grab our attention: the kind of stuff you’d listen to in your native language. And it’s current, up-to-date, regularly published material that can plug you straight into the culture of your target language country.

Here are direct links to some of its national podcast lists:

They are brilliant places to mine for listening material. Additionally, though, they offer a great way of finding out what’s currently popular where your language is spoken.

Podcast your life!

Podcast listening has been a bigger part of my own language learning strategy than ever in recent months. Instead of listening to programmes in my native language, I’ve tried to replace them with similar material in the target language. I don’t watch TV; instead, I make my foreign podcast picks my entertainment. It’s a conscious effort to bring language into my everyday, and not just the bit of my life labelled ‘learning time’. It’s all about living the language, rather than just studying it.

This is a great strategy particularly for languages in maintenance mode Рlanguages you are already proficient in, but want to keep at a good level. German and Spanish will always be my strongest foreign languages, for example, being my degree languages. But through podcasts, I can actually enjoy keeping them strong and fresh.

Stretch yourself

That’s not to say that beginners can’t also gain a lot from a well-chosen podcast. In my own experience, my Norwegian comes on in fits and starts. I’d say I still hover around a B1/B2 in terms of proficiency. However, I¬†love the NRK podcast Spr√•kteigen. It’s a programme about language aimed at native Norwegian listeners, and it really stretches my comprehension.

But despite not being an advanced speaker, the topic switches me on enough to stay focused and enjoy each episode. Being a favourite topic of mine also helps; I can often guess new words from the context. It’s win-win: I regularly improve my Norwegian, and I learn lots about my favourite topic at the same time!

The iTunesCharts.net site is a real goldmine for the linguist. I now have more podcasts than I can fill my spare time with, but it’s always good to have choices! I hope you find something useful in there too.

 

Podcasts can be a perfect gateway to your own interests in the target language culture

Perfect podcast picks for language learners

The podcast has been a wonderful invention for the linguaphile. Just ten, twenty years ago, language aficionados would need all manner of equipment to tune in to overseas broadcasts. These days, thousands of them are just a click and a download away. All you need is a pair of headphones to immerse yourself in your foreign language, whenever, wherever.

However, as with many facets of modern life, the problem is often too much choice. How do you set about finding suitable native language podcasts as a learner? Some material might seem linguistically beyond your level, for example. And the topic matter is not always guaranteed to switch on your interest, either. News and current affairs programmes in French, for instance, may provide scant fun if you have enough of politics in your regular exposure to home news.

Personal interest as motivator

The best strategy comes in combining both those needs: accessibility and interest. If you hit upon some foreign-language content you are really interested in, a couple of magical things happen:

  1. You feel more motivated to focus on the language through personal interest
  2. You use your existing knowledge of the topic to make educated guesses about the language you don’t know

In short, if current affairs are not your thing, avoid the news podcasts. Even excellent learner resources like Deutsche Welle’s News in Slow German will be useless if you don’t get excited by the news. But if you’re learning French and love Motocross, then you’ll try¬†really hard to get all the details from anything you find on the site Moto Verte!

I’ve seen the personal passion-motivator work for reading, too; as a language teacher, I’d regularly bring in target language magazines I’d picked up abroad. Suddenly, kids who were hard to reach in German class were poring over complicated texts in computer and football magazines, intrigued by the content. What’s more, they were managing to understand it through sheer determination. Personal interest sparks learning – almost by stealth.

Starting point: national broadcasters

When hunting podcasts, you do have to do a little digging to unearth the interesting content hiding behind the ubiquitous current affairs programmes. Fortunately, national broadcasters all over the world create heaps of it, on all sorts of topics. One of the best places to start on the search for the perfect podcast is by finding out the national broadcaster in your target language country; the Wikipedia list at this link is an excellent place to start.

After finding out which organisation produces content in your country of interest, you could just check out their website. Broadcaster websites aren’t always the easiest to navigate, though. And they can be a little overwhelming if you’re still not very confident in the language.

Instead, head to iTunes (or your podcast app of choice), and search for the broadcaster name under podcasts. It should throw out lots of options, like this search under Spanish broadcaster RTVE:

Podcast search on iTunes for RTVE, the Spanish national broadcaster

Podcast search on iTunes for RTVE, the Spanish national broadcaster

Some broadcasters are better than others, admittedly. Spanish learners are in luck, as RTVE has programmes from all walks of life. I love food (come on, who doesn’t?!) as well as health and fitness topics, so one of my personal favourites is weekly journal¬†Alimento y salud¬†(Food and Health). These are fields that many of us know a lot about from our own lives. So even when the language is fast and furious, I can usually fill the gaps with an educated guess.

The format is lively, too; recently, the programme ran a fascinating feature on space cuisine for orbiting astronauts. Great for individual learners, but also worth considering as an interesting listening task for classes!

Off the beaten podcast path

Podcast hunting is perfect for sourcing free, engaging material for off-the-beaten-path languages, too. This can be a major boon, given that listening material specifically for learners can be prohibitively expensive. The student CD to accompany the intermediate Norwegian course Stein p√• stein, for example, is over ¬£20 – and that’s not including postage from Norway. Instead, a bit of mining can uncover a wealth of listening material for no cost at all.

That free material can be challenging, for sure. After all, it’s intended for native speakers, first and foremost. But if you hit on something you love, it can really switch you on to the target language.

As a Norwegian learner, I’m lucky that Norwegian broadcaster NRK has a great range of special interest programmes. One in particular – Spr√•kteigen – is all about the quirks of language. I honestly can’t think of a better programme for a language geek to be practising Norwegian with!

Podcasts are an invaluable, immersive resource for language learners. I hope some of the tips above provide a good starting point for your own mining. And maybe, along the way, you’ll hit that gem – the foreign language podcast that you become a real fan of. There are few better ways of getting really switched on to your target language culture!