Note taking, particularly in the form of crib sheets, is a powerful way to summarise your knowledge.

Support your speaking skills with custom crib sheets

If you have ever revised for exams, you are probably already familiar with the crib sheet. A condensed, one-page summary of all the major facts to remember, they have saved the academic life of many a student over the years.

Originally, the idea of the crib sheet was to cheat in an exam. Nowadays, they have more of a sense of ‘cheat sheet’ in the sense of a handy cramming list of facts and figures. And it’s this aspect that can be incredibly useful to you as a language learner.

Ready-made crib sheets

There are already a few ready-made fact crammers on the market. QuickStudy produces some very nice laminated ones, tailor-made for ringbinders.

No doubt, these are excellent quick references to have by you. But you can improve on them in a couple of ways. For one thing, they are a little too comprehensive. They’re more like reference works than on-the-spot speaking support. Also, by creating your own custom crib sheets, you have a more personal connection with the material. And claiming ownership over your learning is a good step towards making it stick.

Preparing your own

When creating your own crib sheets, the aim is not to list every single factoid. Rather, they should be a sensibly ordered skeleton of knowledge to support recall. As such, what it shouldn’t be is an attempt to write down all the words you know, in tiny script. For one thing, there is just too much of it – most estimates suggest 1000 words as a guideline for basic fluency. Your brain is a memorising machine, so leave the dictionary work to that.

What crib sheets can do is give you a place to collect the ‘glue’ that holds all your vocabulary together. Instead of individual words, think model phrases and structures, fillers and helper words. These conversational building blocks are often the items we umm and aah for most when starting a foreign language. Think of the sheet as a key to opening up your speaking – a tree to hang your vocabulary on.

Drawn and quartered

Bearing that in mind, a sheet of A4 is the ideal crib sheet size. You can fit in a fair bit, but it also encourages economical summarising. This makes your sheet a lot easier to reference and pull info from later on.

To keep things in order, quarter your sheet into four sections. Each of these will contain related types of words or structures. Dividing into four corners works a treat for visual learners – if you are mentally chasing a particular phrase, you can try to picture the relevant part of the page.

What these sections represent is completely up to you, and will vary from learner to learner. I’ve found the following most useful when starting out:

  • Likes / dislikes phrases
  • Little function words like question words (what, who, why etc.), connectors and similar, and indeterminate helper words (“something”, “somewhere”)
  • Fillers / brief reactions (“I agree!”, “exactly!”)
  • Sentence patterns / frameworks that you can slot words into as needed (“I’ve recently …”, “I should have …”, “I’d rather …” etc.)

Using your course book / Google Translate (be careful, though!) or working with your tutor, you can build this up into a little framework for speaking. Most importantly, it will be tailored to you – to the things you find most interesting or important to talk about. Use your native language as a guide – I often find myself talking about what I should do / should have done when chatting, so these are framework phrases I definitely wanted to add to my crib sheet.

Crib sheets evolve with you

Most importantly of all, your crib sheet is not static. It should evolve with you as your skill in the language grows. The more you use it and tweak it, the more it will reflect your characteristic speech repertoire.

Think of your native language; we all have favourite turns of phrase that pepper our talk. And as you learn, over time, certain sentences will drop out of your regular use, while others become your go-to conversational helpers. Having a target language crib sheet that reflects this is a nice way to record how your own style is developing.

Once you’re happy with your crib sheets, laminating them is a great idea – like writing up your notes in ‘best’, it’s another helpful way to take a bit of pride in your learning.

Happy learning!

Finally, if you find crib sheet creation a handy helper, you could also consider making speaking bingo sheets for on a lesson-by-lesson basis. It’s all about the preparation!

Have fun creating your crib sheets. And if you found this idea useful, please share.
Thanks, and happy learning!

Colourful balloons

Children’s books for linguists: creative ways into languages

Being a linguaphile and a bibliophile often go hand in hand. I love languages and I love books. Both of these passions go straight to the heart of what it means to get creative with words. Certainly, tapping into creativity (often to the point of being bizarre and fantastical) has helped me to get ahead in languages. And there are few more creative resources in any language than children’s books!

There are some obvious benefits to using children’s books as language learning resources. The language in them will be accessible as a beginner, for one thing. Structure, vocabulary and topic will generally be very straightforward. What’s more, the subject matter can be familiar and predictable, especially in the case of children’s fiction; this is a gift to the active language learner, who likes to make educated guesses at new words rather than look everything up.

Culturally embedded bedtime reading

Native works can be a great introduction to the cultural background of your target language. For instance, children’s stories and fairytales often proceed from a long history of folk storytelling. In some cases, these date back to an ancient oral tradition. The highly popularised work of the Brothers Grimm, for example, draws together hundreds of tales from the collective consciousness of their time. The morals and aphorisms contained within them are echoed in popular culture to this day, being constantly recycled in modern media.

Their themes will be familiar to many non-native speakers, too, thanks to the ancient pedigree of many of the stories. One of my favourite children’s books in a foreign language is this huge tome of Norwegian eventyr. Many of these fairytales seem very familiar to anyone who was brought up with the Grimm’s traditional brand of fairytale, and it is easy to imagine the Proto-Germanic tribes – probably ancestors amongst them – telling versions of these long before they were written down.

Norwegian Fairytales

Norwegian Fairytales

Non-fiction

The place of children’s books in your language learning goes beyond storytelling, too. Reference material in the target language can be a brain-stretching replacement for easier, less challenging tools like Google Translate or a bilingual dictionary. A favourite of mine is this illustrated Icelandic dictionary for children. It is much more rewarding to look up an unfamiliar word here. It may use a little more brain-power, but it adds some valuable target language exposure to your reading.

The Icelandic Children's Dictionary - children's books for reference can be excellent resources

The Icelandic Children’s Dictionary

Children’s books in translation

Children’s books translated from another language might put the cultural purist right off. After all, what is authentic about that? But there are huge benefits for the learner of a foreign language here, especially if you know the original work well.

The Harry Potter books have been my guilty pleasure for some years. I know the stories so well, that tackling them in any new language is a lot easier than facing completely unknown territory. It was actually in German that I read them first, having stubbornly held back from the popular wave of Pottermania. I picked up the third installment, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, from a station bookshop near Cologne. I was one of the teachers on a school trip, and the excitable chattering of the kids about heroic Harry finally piqued my curiosity.

Years later, and I’ve read Harry Potter books in several languages now, including Norwegian, Russian and Spanish. Each time, they have been an amazing boost to my overall language competence. It is also quite a fancy party piece to recite spells in a number of tongues. Thanks for that, J.K.Rowling!

You can start with much simpler stories than Harry Potter. For example, here are a couple of Icelandic primary readers that I picked up in Keflavík Airport. They are, in fact, translations of anglophone children’s books, so the stories may well be familiar to many learners. (They are also brilliant for learning the names of animals!)

Icelandic Primary Readers

Icelandic Primary Readers

So there is a peek into some of the – perhaps – more surprising items on my otherwise very grown-up language learning bookshelf. There is no shame in reverting to your childhood reading habits when learning a language. And, being generally quite affordable, books for little ‘uns will spare your pennies, too. Here’s to reliving our childhoods through languages!

The French flag flying in front of a town hall

Grammar on a budget: CGP French handbook [review]

I’m a big fan of school revision materials as cheaper alternatives to expensive language textbooks. CGP’s foreign language GCSE revision guides are a case in point. The publishers may be targeting teenage students, but the material is just as effective for older, recreational learners.

These language revision guides are largely topic-based, vocabulary-driven textbooks. But French learners can now learn the nuts and bolts of the language on a shoestring; CGP’s KS3 & GCSE French Grammar handbook presents the fundamentals of the language in its trademark concise, colourful way.

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook – (almost) pocket-sized

Grammar, bite by bite

In fewer than 100 pages, the book presents French grammar in palatable, bite-sized chunks. Each major point takes up just a page or two, with simple explanations and clear examples. And the book is packed with colour-coded tables of word forms and conjugations, making it ideal for visual learners.

You can instantly see the attraction of the layout for engaging students on Key Stage 3 / GCSE courses. But it serves as an incredibly accessible grammar guide / refresher for adults, too. Who doesn’t love a bit of colour to aid learning?

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook

The trademark full-colour CGP layout

Clearly, a guide like this won’t be as comprehensive as a benchmark reference work like Routledge’s French Grammar and Usage. CGP will take you a fair way, though; the range of tenses is covered in the short guide, and even the present subjunctive gets a mention. Unless you’re taking French to advanced / university level, chances are that this little book will cover your basic to intermediate needs. At A5 size, it might even fit in your (admittedly large-ish) pocket.

Talking about language

The guide also offers a lot of support if you’re not comfortable with the jargon used to talk about language (metalanguage). More ‘grown-up’ texts can automatically assume the reader grasps grammatical terms about parts of speech, for example. In the CGP grammar guide, however, they all receive clear, plain English explanations. Thanks to the ‘no fluff’, concise style, the material manages to avoid being patronising, too.

French grammar for under a fiver

CGP’s KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook comes in at under a fiver on Amazon.co.uk right now. This compares very favourably with more ‘mature’ basic reference guides, like Teach Yourself’s French Grammar You Really Need To Know.

There is also a companion workbook available at the same price, with practice tests and quizzes. This is in a slightly less pocket-sized A4 format, dwarfing the actual grammar guide. But it is worth paying the little extra for; it offers lots of reinforcement, with a full answer key provided at the back of the booklet.

It’s perhaps not a completely like-for-like comparison, as the Teach Yourself book has many plus points of its own; it has a highly communicative approach, and at twice the length of the CGP guide, it can afford more page space for extra examples and exercises (which are in a separate book in CGP’s case). However, if you’re on a tight budget, CGP has all the necessary points covered.

It’s a great addition to the CGP range, and a release that means learner texts needn’t cost the earth. French is the only language offered right now, although it would be very welcome – and not inconceivable – to see the same title for German and Spanish if this release does well.