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 – and therefore expecting – a 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, Menntamálastofnun.

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!

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!

Eurovision 2017 Logo

Add some Eurovision sparkle to your language learning!

The Eurovision Song Contest may be over for 2017 (congratulations, first-time winner Portugal!), but it can still be a sparkling, magical resource for teaching and learning modern foreign languages.

Eurovision and languages have gone hand-in-hand for me since my early days of crazy fandom. Aged 15, I became intrigued by this exotic musical competition full of unusual-sounding tongues. It fuelled my nascent passion for languages, and it’s a dual obsession that continues to this day. Eurovision is why I can say ‘love’ in 20+ languages. It’s why I know all the country names so well in French. And even with the explosion of English-language songs since 1999, it can be a wonderful learning resource for ‘normal’ folk, too! 

Here, I’ve collected a few ideas for getting started with Eurovision as a language-learning resource. Admittedly, the links here will be old-hat to dyed-in-the-wool fans like me. But if you’re just a marginally less insane lover / learner / teacher of languages, you might find something useful in here for your own learning.

Eurovision can be fun, serious, silly, touching – but most of all, memorable. And it’s that memorability that gives the material salience and staying power when you’re learning a language!

Videos and lyrics

As talking points for a lesson, Eurovision clips are perfect. They’re short – the three-minute rule makes sure of that – and they are wonderful time capsules of fashion, too, giving you loads of material for discussion. Do you like the stage / set? What do you think of the clothes? Would that song be a hit today? You can go on and on.

The official YouTube channel of the Eurovision Song Contest is the first stop for video clips of songs from past contests. If you can’t find the exact entries you want there, a quick search on YouTube along the lines of “Eurovision YEAR COUNTRY” (like “Eurovision 2017 France”) will always throw up some good results.

Waxing lyrical

For a bit of text support, there is a fantastic lyrics site with every Eurovision entry to date on it: The Diggiloo Thrush (you may have to stop tittering at the name before you look it up).

I’ve used Eurovision lyrics to mine for fresh vocab. For instance, I’ll take a song I like in a language I’m learning, look up the text, and note any new words in my vocab bank (I use Anki currently for this). If I really love a song, I’ll also try to learn it, so I can sing it in the privacy of my own shower. T.M.I., I know, but whatever it takes to learn!

Eurovision gapfills

If you’re teaching others, you can use lyrics to make interactive activities for your students, too. Copy and paste your chosen song text into a document / Textivate game or similar, removing some of the words to make a gapfill. Play the song to the students and get them to fill in the gaps as they hear them. It’s a brilliant way to focus the ears on the sounds of the target language.

There are lots of ways to approach this with different objectives. For instance, you could remove all the non-content words, like ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘then’ and so on. That hones the attention on all those little connective words that we need to make our language flow. Alternatively, take out the content words (you’ll find ‘love’ quite a lot in Eurovision songs!) to practise concrete, topical vocab.

Language awareness

A game I liked to play with my own language classes, back in the day, was ‘guess the language’. I’d prepare clips of Eurovision songs in a range of languages including the one(s) the class was learning. Of course, you can throw in some sneaky difficult ones. Dutch is great, if they’re learning German, or Italian if they’re learning Spanish, to throw them off the scent.

It’s an engaging and competitive way to get students thinking about how languages are related to one another, and where the language they’re learning fits in to the bigger picture. It’s ‘meta-knowledge’ in the sense that it’s about what they’re learning more generally – language – than knowledge of the language itself. But it’s an excellent way to show the target language within its global context.

Eurovision: national reactions

National press can go crazy over Eurovision, generating a raft of headlines and articles for consumption. Right after a contest, you can easily find web articles from countries that did either well or badly, by simply going to the homepage of the national broadcaster. This article from Norwegian broadcaster NRK, for example, describes the high mood of the team after scoring a top ten placing in Kyiv this year.

Why are these articles useful? Well, they’re usually quite simple to read. They’re about a well-known, universal field – music and entertainment – so they won’t contain too many complex notions like other news articles might. Also, they’re full of those vocab items like dates, numbers and such like, which are simple, but a pain to learn. Excellent practice!

Where to find broadcaster links? Well, Wikipedia provides a very handy list of EBU member stations at this link. Also handy for looking up programming in your target language, even when Eurovision isn’t on!

Eurovision is a marvellous, fun, colourful, diverse and happy medium for language learning. What’s more, all of the material is freely available online for you to get creative with. With over 60 years of history, there’s a treasure of resources to play with, so get out there and bring some Eurovision magic into your language learning!

A classroom ready for teaching

Teaching to learn: boost your studies by helping others

The idea of learning through teaching is nothing new. We find the idea in an old Latin proverb, docendo discimus (by teaching, we learn), possibly handed down to us from Seneca the Younger. The premise is simple: being able to explain what we know turns that knowledge from passive into active smarts.

We might also argue that the skill of teaching is facilitating learning, rather than bound to the actual content of that learning. It’s not necessarily about what you know, but how well you can explain (and re-explain) material – even new material. In this light, a natural next question is: can we teach without being experts in that content already? And are there learning benefits for us in doing so?

Primary Languages

The Primary Languages model rolled out in many UK schools is a great example of learn-while-teaching. Many teachers are not language specialists, but rather using teaching materials that allow them to stay one step ahead of the students.

The very best materials, like Linguascope‘s elementary resources, are packaged like ready-made lesson plans, which can be reviewed before class and form a roadmap for the teacher. Great teaching in this context is the skill of presenting, explaining and reviewing content, even if you’re just a few steps ahead of your class.

Peer teaching

In the classroom setting, learning through teaching can be just as powerful between peers. Students may be tasked with learning material in order to teach it to other students, either contemporaries or those in lower year groups. The resulting ‘altered expectations‘ – the knowledge that you’ll have to teach the material you’re learning to others – transform motivations and sharpen focus on really understanding. Also dubbed the ‘protégé effect‘, educational scientists have noted how preparation to teach results in students spending longer on material. One study provides empirical evidence for this ‘teaching expectancy‘ effect.

The idea has achieved some institutional acceptance already; educationalist Jean-Pol Martin has helped to instill the Learning by Teaching (Lernen durch Lehren) model as a popular method in German schools. The modern ‘flipped classroom‘ also has elements of student-turned-self-teacher, too, reversing traditional roles.

Build teaching into your own learning

So, teaching as learning has a long pedigree, and already has some good traction in the real world. But what lessons can we take from this for our own language learning?

Bug friends and family

Share with friends and family what you’re learning. They don’t ‘do’ languages? Then break it down as simply as possible. Tell them about a quirk of your target language that you find unusual. Think you’ll bore them to tears? Then find some way to make it interesting to them. The more challenging, the harder you’ll have to think – and the more that material will stick.

To get the interest of family and friends, I’ve actively looked for things that will make them laugh in the past. Never underestimate the power of humour in learning! Funny-sounding words (Fahrt in German is always a good one), weird idioms (tomar el pelo – literally ‘pulling the hair’ for ‘pulling someone’s leg’ in Spanish) and other oddities speak to the imaginations of the most reluctant listeners. “You’ll never guess what the word for ‘swimming pool’ is in French…”

Find a learn-and-teach partner

You can go beyond sharing humorous factoids and foibles. Find a fully-fledged language partner – someone who is as motivated as you to learn the language – and devise a schedule where you take turns in teaching vocabulary or grammar points each week. You’ll be activating those ‘teaching expectancy’ effects that worked so well in the classroom studies above.

Create resources for other learners

A revision technique I learnt as a student was to condense important points into simple explanations for others. If you can explain something complicated in a new, simpler way, then it’s a good sign that you really understand it.

Something I’ve been doing recently is to revisit my Castilian by creating Spanish revision videos for beginners. It’s been a form of revision for me, activating old knowledge bases that were starting to fade through lack of use. And because of the interconnected nature of knowledge (the neural networks of our brains), switching on a few buried memories triggers and refreshed many more connected informational blobs.

It’s easy to find a platform to share your homemade revision resources these days. Starting a YouTube channel or a Facebook group could be the perfect platform for your own learning through teaching.

Teaching is connecting

At the heart of it, learning through teaching embodies what languages are all about: making connections, building bridges. Try working some of these ideas into your own learning, and enjoy the social splashback!

Study material for a course

Course books for linguists: save cash with revision guides

When you commit to learning a foreign language, it’s not unusual for a first step to be seeking out good course material. There are plenty of very well established courses, the best including audio material. The staple Teach Yourself series, for example, was always my favourite place to start when starting out on a new language project.

Unfortunately, it can be an expensive business. Course books, audio CDs, dictionaries, grammar reference guides – it all adds up. Fortunately, there’s a cheaper alternative if you’re after simple beginner materials. And they come with some unique advantages over traditional courses, too!

The wallet-saving secret:
Revision guides intended for first-level language exams at high schools.

It was through writing reviews for several revision guides in recent years that I realised how useful the could be beyond their target audience. For a start, they’re comprehensive; the best guides from publishers like CGP include:

  • Thematically organised vocabulary lists and phrases
  • Grammar reference broken into bite-sized chunks
  • Audio material for listening practice
  • Word glossaries at the back, which double up as handy simple dictionaries

Moreover, they’re cheap. Aimed at schoolkids, they’re meant to be an affordable route to getting the best grades. CGP’s GCSE French (Edexcel) revision guide is just £12.99. For comparison, the full Colloquial French course is £19.99 for the book, and £10 for the CD on Amazon.

Horses for courses

OK, it’s not a completely fair comparison, like for like. A revision guide, by definition, is concise and snappy. It’s meant to remind, not to teach. Conversely, a full course will give you lengthier explanations and more extensive examples.

But sometimes, less can be more. If you want an at-a-glance list of useful words or grammar points, then maybe you don’t want all the extra fluff. Revision guides give you all the content, with very little padding and hand-holding.

What’s more, the CGP guides come with useful extras like online library versions. You might prefer not to lug the physical book everywhere. No problem: just access it via an internet-connected device. You’ll find it much harder, generally, to get the electronic version of a full-blown course as a free addition to the hard copy.

Weighing it up

Here are some key advantages and disadvantages to bear in mind when choosing cheap and cheerful course materials over more ‘grown-up’ stuff:

Revision guides Full courses
Cheaper
Concise but comprehensive
Can include audio material
At-a-glance learning material, no ‘fluff’
Many include online versions at no extra cost these days
Great quick reference
Often fun, colourful publications rather than boring old black-and-white
More extensive examples and explanations
Audio material usually more comprehensive and varied
May include more ‘grown-up’ topics and more relevant examples for mature learners

Going off-course

One final point for consideration is language availability. As schools are the target market, you’ll only find guides for languages commonly taught in schools. As an example, the CGP GCSE guides are available only in French, German and Spanish. Not much luck if you’re after cheap materials in Basque, Finnish or Norwegian.

If you can find a good fit for your language, though, consider revision guides.
Made for kids, great for all beginner linguaphiles!

A dictionary won't always help you learn words in their natural habitat: the sentence.

Sentence building: Go beyond words with Tatoeba

Learning and assimilating vocabulary in a foreign language isn’t simply a case of learning lists of words: context matters. Just like a careful zoologist observing animals in the wild, it’s important to study words in their natural habitat: the sentence.

Conversely, a lot of reference material for language learners fails to provide this context. If you’re looking for single words in your foreign language, there are myriad look-up tools available. Unfortunately, only a few take steps to set the word in situ; Google Translate, for example, is surprisingly better than many online dictionaries at providing context. If you type in a single word, many entries come with a list of translations and a useful list of cross-referenced, related terms too. Arguably a lot more useful to language learners than the actual machine translation feature!

Google Translate is great for single word look-ups, too!

Google Translate is great for single word look-ups.

However, there is little else online in terms of whole-sentence reference, Apart from “basic phrases in…” pages. Indexed, systematic lists of example sentences, complete with translation support, are harder to find.

Habeas corpus (linguisticus)

One open-source resource, though, is changing that. Tatoeba – from the Japanese ‘for example’ – is a vast, and rapidly growing, corpus of thousands of sentences in scores of languages. Moreover, it’s expanding continually through user contributions. And you, as a native speaker of your own language (even if it’s English!), can help expand it further.

With many of the entries including native-speaker audio, it is a fantastic (and still quite untapped) resource for language learners. It’s full of colloquialisms, handy turns of phrase, and authentic language use. There are many ways you can work it into your own learning; here are just a few ideas for starters.

Words in context

Learnt a new word, but not sure exactly how native speakers use it? Type that single word into Tatoeba, and if you’re lucky, a whole load of sentences will come up. It’s a fantastic way to put your new vocab into context, something which definitely helps me to commit new words to memory. If sound is provided, it’s an instant way to practise / improve your pronunciation too, much like the brilliantly useful Forvo website for single words.

Putting your vocab in context with Tatoeba.

Putting your vocab in context with Tatoeba.

Build your own sentence lists

With your free Tatoeba account, you can save your own word lists to store favourite sentences. Simply click the list icon next to a sentence – you’ll quickly start to build quite extensive, custom ‘vocab in context’ learning resources.

There are also collaborative lists, which means you can work together with others. This might be with classmates, or perhaps even a teacher you’re working with remotely on iTalki. Conversely, it’s also an excellent way for teachers to collate and share useful phrase lists as teaching resources.

Combine with Anki

Anki Flashcards is a firm favourite of many linguaphiles for drilling vocab. You can combine it with Tatoeba by exporting your lists from that site as CSV files, then importing them directly into the Anki program. For now, the Tatoeba export will only extract the text, and no associated sound files. But if you’re willing to fiddle, here’s a short guide on including available sound files in your Tatoeba-Anki port.

If you’re a polyglottal sucker for punishment, you can even export the lists with a translation other than your native language, in order to practise two languages at once. See the screenshot below for a rather scary Norwegian-Greek export setup – I’m sure you can think up even more testing pairings!

Changing the language pairing in a Tatoeba export.

Changing the language pairing in a Tatoeba export.

Find ready-made Tatoeba Anki decks

If all the to-and-fro of exporting puts you off, then don’t despair – some Tatoeba decks have already been imported to Anki as shared desks. Check here for a list of them (several including sound files).

Contribute

Finally, the best way to grow the resource is to become part of it. You can add, correct, record and otherwise extend Tatoeba as a member. If you’ve found it useful, it’s an excellent way to give back.

Tatoeba is one more tool in the linguaphile’s online arsenal, and can be worked into a learning routine in many ways. Feel free to share your own experiences and tips in the comments below!

 

Sites like Swagbucks can really help spare your wallet by offering rewards you can turn into language learning resources.

Swagbucks for linguists: premium learning that spares your wallet

Language learning can be a pricey business. Apps, books, subscriptions – they all add up. Enter Swagbucks, which is great for turning clicks into learning resources!

I’ve been using the Swagbucks reward site since November, when I found out that it offers iTunes credit as rewards. I’d put off buying an expensive language learning app, AnkiMobile Flashcards, due to the cost. But if I could earn vouchers to buy the app rather than use my own money, it wouldn’t hit my pocket so hard!

It took me a few weeks of occasional surveys and clicks to reach the £20 iTunes credit I needed. I won’t pretend that it’s a riveting business, filling in surveys! However, it’s no real hardship, and the points accrue quickly. The site is a favourite of Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis as a great way to garner treats in your spare moments.

Swagbucks for the linguist

Once I’d got my Anki app, why stop there? Swagbucks awards treats not only for iTunes, but also Amazon, and even hard cash through Paypal. All three of these can greatly benefit the language learner by providing a payment source for learning resources. Here are some of the things you can do with your bucks:

iTunes

For a start, you can pay for apps with your iTunes vouchers. There are lots of great pay-for apps, like AnkiMobile Flashcards (which is well worth the high price by the way), and the Eurotalk range of apps for basic vocab.

But you can also use iTunes credit to pay for subscriptions. A couple of big language-learning apps follow a freemium model, where the app is free, but you pay for extra content in the form of subscriptions or add-ons. A couple of the biggies are:

Amazon

It’s a no-brainer – if you redeem your Swagbucks as Amazon vouchers, you can purchase almost anything. Digitally, that means Android apps, foreign language music and Kindle books. In the real world, it’s practically any language learning tool you like, from language courses to DVDs.

PayPal

Likewise, cashing out as PayPal gives you a real freedom to choose. You’ll get a slightly lower rate of conversion, though; you’ll get more purchase for your bucks when redeeming iTunes or Amazon vouchers, so only use PayPal if there’s nothing useful you can get with the other two.

In terms of hard cash sites, one of the most useful resources I’ve found is iTalki. The site offers face-to-face lessons with global teachers over Skype, with prices starting from just a couple of pounds per lesson. Convert your Swagbucks to cash, and they’ll go a long way to promoting your fluency when spent on iTalki lessons.

So, a little elbow grease on a rewards site can really help fuel your language addiction. Roll up your sleeves, grit your teeth, and commit to a Swagbucks survey or two a day. Enjoy guilt-free, wallet-sparing access to premium resources as a result!

dictionary

Getting lost in languages: finding your flow

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

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

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

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

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

In the zone

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

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

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