Time is precious

Time to learn? Fitting languages into busy lives

As a language geek, I’m often asked: “how do you find the time?”. My answer: most of the time, I don’t.

Most self-directed learning is an imperfect process. Adults don’t have time to subdivide their day into neat lesson-shaped slots, as others did for us in school. Learning has to fit around sometimes very hectic lives.

Using ‘dead’ time

A strategy I use every day is making use of what I call ‘dead’ time. It’s time standing, sitting, waiting, otherwise just doing very little. These are our ‘engine idling’ moments. Here are some of the things I do when waiting for a train, bus, haircut, or friends to show up for coffee!

Anki decks

The odd few minutes here and there are ideal for Anki flashcards. I make self-testing on Anki a daily tactic, but, like most humans, I’m susceptible to procrastination. Getting this ticked off during ‘down time’ is much better than leaving it until just before bed!

Reading practice

With smartphones, it’s the easiest thing in the world to tap up some news articles to read. You don’t even need to read the whole article – just looking at the headlines in your target language is some great minutes-long language gym. Right now, I’m actively learning Norwegian, and maintaining German and Spanish. A nose at NRK.no, Spiegel.de and ElPais.com is the least I can do to keep them ticking over.

Don’t even have time for that? Then subscribe to a Read Later service like Pocket (my favourite) to queue material for later. These services facilitate perfect browsing and bookmarking for even the busiest linguists. Several services can also recommend potentially interesting articles after learning your preferences.

Socialise

There are myriad social groups for all kinds of interests on Facebook, and other social media. Find a couple that grab you, and lurk for a while. Read what others are posting in your spare moments. When you feel more comfortable, try commenting in the target language yourself. It can be quite a thrilling experience to join a thread for the first time in a foreign language!

Another trick is to search twitter for #yourcountryname. For instance, I sometimes check #Norge or #norsk for Norwegian – you’d be surprised what comes up, and it’s almost all in the target language!

Casting a wider net

Podcasts and spare moments are positively made for each other. The match is so obvious, I’ve left it ’til last. But the trick is not to be a perfectionist. If you only have time for five minutes of a podcast in your target language, it’s still worth it. Don’t think (like I used to) that it’s pointless unless you can sit down and listen to the whole thing.

That said, some language podcasts are made with our fleeting minutes in mind. For a daily dose of listening practice and current affairs, I love ‘news in easy language’ services. Some recommended ones include:

🇫🇷 French: News in Slow French
🇩🇪 German: Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten (News in slow German) by Deutsche Welle
🇮🇹 Italian: News in Slow Italian
🇳🇴 Norwegian: Språkteigen (a show about language – not aimed at new learners, but it’s often easy to guess unfamiliar words as the topic is so familiar!)
🇪🇸 Spanish: News in Slow Spanish
🇨🇳 Chinese: Slow Chinese

Any other favourites, or biggies I’ve missed? Please share in the comments!

Don’t overdo it

Even the most avid efficiency-seekers amongst us shouldn’t downplay the importance of dead time for a bit of rest. Not even the geekiest brain can (or should) be switched on, full steam ahead, 24/7.

I recommend Headspace for ensuring you turn the volume down regularly. It’s a programme of short meditations that fit perfectly into the ‘between moments’ described in this article. The first ten are free, so it’s worth a try!

Fill your spare minutes, but be kind to yourself.
Balance is key for an active, healthy linguaphile brain!

A clipboard for marking off your routine language learning tasks

Routine-building: productivity tricks to turbocharge your language learning

Good intentions are cheap. A new learning project can fill anyone with enthusiasm and optimism. But without one extra thing, good intentions quickly sink. That thing is routine.

Life has a habit of getting busy, and people get distracted. Days run into weeks, and before you know it, you haven’t done any French / German / Spanish since last month. It happens to the best of us, even those who consider themselves fairly well organised. That’s why creating a scaffold of systematised routine around your learning goals can help keep you on track.

Keeping up momentum

Ideally, you should be setting yourself daily learning goals in order to keep up momentum with your studies. This might sound like a hefty commitment, but needn’t be more than a few minutes a day if you’re fitting learning around a busy life; you’ll benefit from the regularity of it (and not get bored by mammoth learning sessions either).

But it’s sticking to this daily routine that can be problematic. It’s too easy to forget, to get sidetracked, or make promises to catch up that you never honour. Fortunately, there are several great tools for tackling these problems, and none of them need cost a penny.

Never forget: Wunderlist

We’re lucky that today, apps can pick up the slack for our sometimes overtaxed brains. One app that I entrust the job of reminders to is the wonderful Wunderlist.

The magic of to-do apps like Wunderlist is in the facility to set automatically repeating tasks with reminders. For instance, I aim to run through my Anki Flashcard vocabulary every day (it just takes 10 minutes or so). In Wunderlist, I add a to-do for that, setting it to repeat daily, with a reminder in the evening. I set up similar to-dos for my weekly tasks, like listening to a podcast and taking notes, or reading news headlines in the target language.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Why is Wunderlist better than the plain old to-do app that comes with your phone OS? Well, it can do some very fancy things very well, if you want to stretch your learning. Learning a language with someone else? You can have shared to-do lists, and to-do list folders. Learning several languages? You can have multiple lists, and list folder to help you organise. You can even use it as a basic project manager, assigning subtasks to your more general to-dos (perhaps breaking ‘Learn French Vocabulary’ into ‘5 irregular verbs’, ‘5 phrases from Book X’ and so on).

It’s also cross-device, so you can manage your tasks on any device with an Internet connection. Perfect for when I’ve just done my words on the bus, and want the satisfaction of marking it as ‘done’ immediately!

Moreover, as a sweetener, you can add emoticons like flags to your to-dos quite easily on a device (see my screenshot above). It’s the little things! 😉

Tick-box challenge: Evernote

I’ve mentioned the excellent 12 Week Year plan in a previous post. This productivity method, rooted in the business world, outlines short-term goal-planning techniques as a means to boost efficiency. However, it can work brilliantly for language learners.

The approach uses a weekly list of ‘tactics’ that you need to complete in order to stay on track. Ticking off your daily / weekly tactics as you complete them can give you a real sense of achievement, and you find yourself motivated to keep your completion rate high, and beat your previous form. It turns to-do lists into a kind of personal challenge – learning, instantly gamified!

I find Evernote – available in its basic version for free – is perfect for making these weekly plans. You can add dynamic tick boxes next to your list items in the app, which makes tracking your progress really easy. Like Wunderlist, it’s available on many devices and platforms, too.

To give your learning an Evernote boost, first decide on the things you want to do each week in order to progress. Then add them to a note in the app, including a tick box next to each one. At the end of each week, tot up the percentage of boxes you ticked, and make a note of your score before writing a planning note for the following week. Brian Moran, writer of The 12 Week Year, suggests 85% as a good completion rate to aim for.

Ideas for entries might include:

  1. Add 20 words to Anki Flashcards every week (one tick box)
  2. Drill with Anki Flashcards every day (seven tick boxes)
  3. Read 3 full-length articles in the target language each week (three tick boxes)
  4. Have two half-hour language exchange conversations with a partner (see iTalki for more about finding language exchange partners)
Example of an Evernote productivity list to help create a routine for your language learning

Creating language routines with Evernote

Routine browser links: Chrome

Setting yourself a reading goal is a great challenge for language learners. There is a ton of material published across all sorts of subjects online, and the trick is to find stories that spark your interest.

But how can you keep your list of regular reading organised and accessible? Well, browser bookmarks are a start. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll enthusiastically bookmark a page, never to dig into your bookmark list again (let alone every day, which is my goal).

There is another way to bookmark, though. It’s called the bookmarks bar in Chrome, and many other browsers have a similar feature. Instead of tucking your most visited links away in a menu or folder, it puts them right at the top of the browser window, always visible. If you find a really useful site, you can drag the address from the URL field to the bookmark bar to pin it there.

So how to take advantage of this? I have a couple of news sites that I try to check every day to practise target language reading. All of them are my first bookmarks bar links, so the moment I open the browser, they’re there, reminding me that I need to check them. No forgetting, no hiding, and a bit of guilt if I ignore them. It becomes almost second nature to click them as soon as you fire up the browser – the ultimate habit-former. Magic! You can only fit a few in your bar, so reserve it for those sites you feel you’ll get a daily benefit from.

The Chrome bookmarks bar can be an excellent way to build routine into your language learning

The Chrome bookmarks bar

 

Cross-pollination

Learning a language is a commitment, and commitment takes routine. I’ve come across these routine-building techniques through my work in a business environment, rather than the classroom. But I’ve become a huge fan of cross-pollinating these kinds of productivity hacks with language learning.

The greatest lesson I’ve learnt in this is not to box off your language learning, but let it be informed by, and inform in return, the rest of your life. Creating routine is a great place to start that melding process!

Dogs dressed as clowns

Be a clown! How playing the fool makes you a better linguist

Can I tell you my guilty secret? I love making a fool of myself.

Before any of my friends and family organise an intervention to curb these masochistic tendencies,  I should qualify that: I love playing the fool when it comes to foreign languages, and I think a touch of the clown is an essential part of being a successful linguist.

It wasn’t always like this. In the not-so-distant past, I’d agonise over enunciating my foreign phrases so perfectly, so seriously, that I’d reduce myself to a stuttering, gibbering wreck by the time I was standing in front of a native speaker. I’d convince myself that grammatical correctness was a deeply serious business, and I’d risk ridicule if I got just one of my endings wrong. I was passionate about languages – surely that meant they were a matter of extreme gravity!

In fact, the opposite was true – by hyper-focussing on being right, I was taking the whole business of communication – the ultimate goal of language learning – to a really unhelpful extreme. Needless to say, it turned me into that paradox of the linguist who was terrible at speaking.

The turning point

It took a pretty embarrassing incident to change all that (and I’m thankful for it!). Spending a year abroad in Austria as part of my degree, I had the chance to entertain neighbours at my place. It was all a bit short notice, and I’d barely had chance to tidy up when they knocked on the door. “Come in!” I started, in German, “but I’m really sorry about all the diarrhoea everywhere!

Yes, I honestly said that.

It wasn’t planned, of course, and – mortifyingly – nobody said a word, until a friend (stifling laughter) explained what I’d said after the event. It certainly explained the sidewards glances and smiles, which I’d put down to my not-so-Austrian accent. I felt such a fool!

Laugh at yourself

It could have gone both ways, that incident. On the one hand, I was horrified at my mistake (somehow, who knows how, mixing up Durcheinander – mess – and Durchfall – diarrhoea). I could have thrown in the towel there and then, and been put off the language for life. On the other hand, it was genuinely pretty funny – it certainly made my friend laugh, and me too, once the horror had subsided! And it underscored for me the importance of silliness in language learning.

For one thing, I will never forget those two words. Ever! I mean, how could I? The whole tragic story is etched, indelibly, excruciatingly, into my memory.  But it also makes me laugh, to this day, and those happy, daft feelings are more than just the warm fuzz of nostalgia. There is lots of evidence to suggest that happy memories are ones that last longer. A wealth of psychological studies attest this Fading Affect Bias (FAB – great acronym), which seems to be one of the core drivers behind fun and play-based learning. When you fool about and have a laugh with language, it simply sticks longer. It’s one of the reasons that techniques like Linkword work so well, too.

The name of the game

Language teachers know this only too well. As a former classroom teacher and friend to many more, I can honestly say that we’re the most open bunch to in-school silliness. The language classroom is perhaps the most game-based and fun of them all (I’m biased, I know!).

However, it’s something we could all carry into our own individual learning too, at whatever age. I work in a multilingual office for part of the week, and it would be a crime not to take advantage of that as a linguaphile. It would be too easy to approach that in a very straight-laced way, and try to engage colleagues in formalised chit-chat (poor them, I’m sure you’re thinking!).

But it’s much more fun – and a heap less stressful – to have a bit of a laugh, say some silly things to practise your latest vocab, and make people smile and laugh. It’s clowning around, but it’s creating those fuzzy feelings around language learning that will make you want to carry on. I don’t expect to ever say “I need a sheep” in Polish, like I did the other day (you had to be there, I think), but I’ll definitely not forget the Polish for “I need…” after having a chuckle over it!

(Don’t) pity the fool

The crux of all this is simple: bring some uninhibited joy back into your language learning. When the time comes, you can play it straight. While you’re learning, though, clown around with words. Make happy language memories. Be a big kid. Play. Be silly and make people laugh – after all, the world’s a better place for it.

A ribbon on a gift.

Gift ideas for language lovers

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

Films with foreign language soundtracks

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

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

Mini flashcard sets

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

A Readly Subscription

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

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

iTunes or Google Play credit

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

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

Gift cards – for free!

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

Give yourself

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

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

The Globe

Tips from a language junkie

I admit it – I’m a language junkie. I’m perennially curious, always looking for something new to learn. New languages are pretty, shiny objects and I’m a restless polyglot magpie.

Not surprisingly, a question I’m asked a lot is “Don’t you get mixed up learning all those languages?”. It’s an understandable question, to which I’d reply, first off: have faith in your brain! It’s more adept than you realise at keeping things separated. Children brought up bilingually manage it neatly, so why shouldn’t your mature, adult brain?

There are a number of things you can do to help keep things compartmentalised, though. For instance, users of Anki might want to take advantage of custom cards, so you can colour-code those belonging to your different languages. There’s a good beginners’ guide on doing this on YouTube at this link. Here are a couple of mine; the key is to make your different language cards as distinctive as possible (I like to use flags):

A customised Icelandic card in Anki

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

If you prefer to keep your lists the offline way, you might think about colour-coding your vocab notes by language, too.

Secondly, there are several reasons why learning more than one language can be more effective and beneficial than just learning one.

I try to pick just one language within a major group to focus on (for instance, Norwegian from North Germanic, and Spanish from the Italic languages). That’s not to preclude others from that group completely – it’s just that the main focus language will become the ‘anchor’ for that group. Instead of learning Icelandic (another North Germanic language) from scratch, for example, I’ll relate it to Norwegian as my base language.

Take the Norwegian word dør (door), for example – in Icelandic, this is dyr. Contrasting and comparing cognates like this gives you a real feel for the language group as a whole. This way, you can build up an instinct for the regular patterns of change and difference between languages, which deepens your understanding of each one.

Be a bluffer!

What’s more, learning patterns like this can give you some productive rules for ‘guessing’ or ‘bluffing’ in other languages. To take Spanish as an example, with a little learning you can learn how to ‘Portuguesify’ your Castilian, and fake enough Portuguese to get by in simple situations. You’ll spot that Spanish initial ll-, for instance, is often ch- in Portuguese, so you can guess that llegar (to arrive) in Spanish is chegar in Portuguese. You might also see that Spanish diphthongises a vowel (sticks two or more vowel sounds together) where Portuguese doesn’t, so huevo (egg) in Spanish is ovo in Portuguese. It doesn’t always work, but pattern-spotting is definitely a good way to get a working version of a new language up and running, based on something you already know.

Cross-reference your vocab

I also like to use my stronger languages to check for gaps in my nascent ones. If I learn a new word in, say, Norwegian, I’ll check whether I know that word in my other languages too. My OCD streak dictates that I hate gaps and imbalances in my knowledge, but it’s not hard to look up the missing words and make a note of them (in Anki, in my case). At the simplest level, you could do this in a vocab notebook or Excel spreadsheet:

English German Spanish Norwegian Polish
dog der Hund el perro en hund pies
cat die Katze el gato en katt kot

It’s also a great way to start spotting similarities and relationships between the languages you’re learning.

The underlying message of this post is: you don’t have to settle for just one foreign language if you have the time and motivation! Have faith that your mind is more than equipped to deal with multiple tracks, and enjoy the extra benefits that learning more than one can give you.