A short study break may do your brain the world of good between the book marathons. (Image from freeimages.com)

The returner learner effect : how a study break can be a language learning boost

Brains are mysterious things. Sometimes, they seem to display most counter-intuitive behaviour. Just take the study break, for example. Give yourself a few months off a language, and you might expect to be a bit rusty as a returner learner. But sometimes, on your return, you get that joyful feeling that it never went away. And somehow, could it feel even more solid than before?

It’s more common than you think.

Budding polyglots, by their nature, experience the returner learner effect a lot. Since it is rarely a good idea to study more that one or two languages at once, there can be stretches where any language aficionado is not actively working on several of them. Often, there may not even be opportunities to speak them regularly.

Some maintenance is essential, of course. And we can keep things ticking over with a weekly tactical schedule that at least gives a nod to all of our projects. But it is almost inevitable that some languages will be put into a deeper sleep than others.

Software-Switching

Never fear. I actually like to think that we are made to use our brains like this. Short-term, or working memory, for example, can only hold around seven items for processing at any one time. On a longer-term scale, learnt skills, like languages, are also processing-hungry programs that cannot all be run altogether at full capacity at the same time.

Computer analogies, although not always perfect, can be neatly apt ways to think about the brain. Just today, this nostalgic thread about early 1980’s, disk-based computing bubbled up into my Twitter timeline. What better metaphor for the nature of our active and passive languages? There is certainly an element of software-switching going on when I prepare to ‘load up’ a language I haven’t used in a while. Although it’s not quite “Insert Russian: Disk 4”, it can feel like some gear-shifting is required to switch a language back on.

Let sleeping languages lie…

For various reasons, I had parked my Norwegian in the cerebral software archive a few months ago. For one thing, I had enjoyed a couple of trips to Oslo already by last Summer. Now it was time for other plans, other countries, and other languages – at least for a while.

Not only that, but the perennial polyglot itch was making itself felt. I wanted to try new things, and reach new levels with my other projects. My Norwegian was at a decent level; it could withstand a little rest.

Of course, rest should never mean oblivion. Language skills are precious, and it is essential to have a maintenance plan for all of them. Optioned Anki decks is a favoured way to finely control the maintenance all of those you care about keeping, for example. In this way, maintenance can chug along in a fairly low-key fashion.

As long as you do something, those disks should only require occasional dusting to stay serviceable.

And so it was in my case. Along with occasionally reading the news at nrk.no, I kept my Norwegian on a low boil since the end of last Summer.

…until their day comes again

Ultimately, the time comes when sleeping languages grow impatient for the limelight again. My own travel plans had finally come full circle again, settling on Norway (a more irresistible return destination after each trip, believe me – it’s never too long before that scenery exerts its pull!). The time seemed right to dust off the Bokmål.

When bringing your languages out of storage, you need a strategy – something to help load those programs back into memory.

My own, personal favourite is to kickstart passive use via a podcast blitz.

I chose my old favourite Norwegian podcast to stage a return: the fantastic Språkteigen by NRK. It is a real gem for language lovers with a bit of norsk.

In fact, I had been putting off listening to the show for a while. There was a fear that I might have slipped back further than I thought. Would I understand a single word? Should I have been spending more time on Norwegian maintenance? To ease myself back in gently, I selected a low-pressure time – listening on the treadmill at the gym – and clicked play on the programme.

I had nothing to worry about. I was hooked by the subject matter from the first few lines, and zoned right back into it as I listened and ran. By the end, I’d jogged for thirty minutes without realising it, and felt boosted by how much I understood.

It almost seemed like I could understand more than back when I was actively studying.

The choice of material is crucial, of course. I chose something I’d missed listening to.  I wanted to understand.

The returner learner effect

That feeling of being better after a break is down to a number of elements:

Their effects are felt most keenly just in those days when we return to the language. If you select your return material wisely, you can maximise the motivation that provides. Feed on the renewed confidence. In a subject area that demands so much self-confidence compared to others, it is a rare chance to say: yes, I am not bad at this at all!

Building back active production

Of course, a dose of realism is also required. In my case, I had spent six months not speaking Norwegian at all. The extent of my Bokmål use had been completely passive. While the ‘background task’ effect of the brain may well benefit my active production of Norwegian in the long run, I must still acknowledge that work needs to be done to build back my speaking confidence.

But the lesson here is that all those hours of hard work were not in vain. The brain has the learner’s back. In those quiet months, it works on, patiently distilling that mass of material into a solid skill – one that was ready to load back into memory when needed.

Like all effects, the post-study-break boost wanes as the reality of the study regime kicks in again. You will feel challenged once more. That said, it would be worrying not to feel that way. To make a comparison to working out at the gym, it is often when the muscles feel most taxed that the builder makes the greatest gains.

However transitory the returner learner effect, seize upon it to ride a fresh wave of confidence after a study break. Maximise it by choosing media that you know you will respond positively to. Let it reassure you that your brain is on your side, whatever tricky conundrums language learning throws your way!

Meta-learning - know your brain (Image from freeimages.com)

Meta-learning: relearn how to learn with a new language mini-project

Dia duit! That’s Irish for hello – which, despite a million other things, I chose to start dabbling in this week. Unlike other come-and-go language projects of mine, it’s not a former language I’m returning to. In fact, I knew zero Irish before this week (save the welcoming céad míle fáilte of numerous 1990s Eurovision Song Contests!).

It’s not for want of something to do. I already have plenty of core language learning goals for 2019 to keep me occupied. Improving my Icelandic, Norwegian and Polish are already taking a chunk of my time.

So why the extra load?

Well, apart from the kid-in-a-candy-store nature of being a linguaphile, taking a language detour in totally unknown pastures now and again has great utility. Namely, it is a brilliant way to audit and augment your meta-learning skills: learning how you learn.

Stuck in our ways

Human beings like treading comfortable tracks. Because of that, it is all too easy to get stuck in our ways.

Of course, the familiar often works very well for us. Our regular approaches, methods and routine usually serve us grandly in our language learning goals. But knowing how to learn is a skill, just like any other. We can improve it, or we can neglect it and let it get rusty. And getting into that autopilot groove might actually prevent us from ever getting better at how we learn.

Taking a learning diversion can be a fun way to get unstuck and freshen up your daily language grind. The golden rule here is the more unfamiliar, the better. The idea is to audit how you learn; material unrelated to anything you already know will isolate the learning process from background knowledge that may act as a crutch and mask poor learning habits.

In my case, Irish is a real departure from the norm. My background is coloured by Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages, and so a Celtic language is something I can approach with completely fresh eyes, and few chances to rely too comfortably on pre-knowledge.

Unfamiliar material activates your aptitude for exploring your meta-learning skills.

Now, unfamiliar need not mean outside your own sphere of interest. Learning something you have no interest in is never a good idea. Why did I pick Irish? Simple: it’s a beautiful country next to my own, inexpensive to travel to, and I wanted to get to know it a lot better. In the words of Rita Mae Brown:

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.

Meta-learning lessons

One thing you find when you start on these kinds of language mini-project, is just how far your meta-learning skills have come. Regarding my own experience, you could say that I learnt my first foreign languages ‘the hard way’. That meant hours of book-based grammar study and reading in German and Spanish during the 1990s. That clearly worked well enough, as I did well in the subjects at school, and went on to get a degree and forge a career in languages.

That said, I had no access to wonderful tools like Anki, Duolingo, Learning With Texts and Wiktionary back then, or even on-demand access to foreign language media. Some of these things have become language learning staples to me, in many cases only very recently. I have gradually built them into my study routines for maintaining my main languages.

But how would they perform unleashed onto completely new territory?

The great news is that foreign language mini-projects are an excellent way to test the efficiency of all of your favourite methods.

Blended approach

A key discovery for me is the realisation that no single method works efficiently in isolation. A blended approach, using multiple formats, platforms and schedules maximises how well I learn. What’s more, joining up your learning resources manually is a good way to make learning more active, rather than simple passive reception.

You can turn a more passive resource into an active learning process by reworking its material into another format. For example, with Irish, I chose to use Duolingo as my primary lesson source. After each section, I look up new terms on Wiktionary, then add them to a deck of flashcards in Anki. I get more from this learning by doing than I would from using purely premade material.

Beyond that, there are so many things you can do to make lesson material your own. Look up sentences that contain the new words on Tatoeba, for example. Or listen to native speakers pronounce the words or phrases in different way on Forvo. As you experiment, explore and supplement, you expand your expertise in finding and adapting learning resources to get the most out of them. Meta-learning is understanding how to make new knowledge your own.

A dose of realism

Here’s the rub: chances are, that if you have a rose-tinted view of a particular platform, you might end up with a more realistic evaluation of it.

So it is for me with Duolingo. A fantastic free resource, without a doubt, and I was hugely excited to use it to learn a brand new language, rather than support one I was already learning. But how useful is it as your only resource?

I quickly discovered that without pre-knowledge, some Duolingo courses may need a little supplementing. Duolingo Irish, though a great introduction, is not quite enough as a standalone option for me. A particular issue is a lack of native speaker support for all phrases. In Irish, this is crucial given the very particular spelling system that needs to be learnt.

Also, I found myself craving more information about each word: the gender, the plural form and so on. I realised that my learning style requires more interrogation of new terms than the Duolingo course is happy to provide at first. No black-box thinking for me – I have to take those words apart and see every nut and bolt with my own eyes!

Plugging the gaps

Still, add a bit of support with Wiktionary and Forvo, and the creases are ironed out. I’m benefitting from the superb lesson structure and progression in Duolingo, and filling in the gaps my brain needs filled as I need to.

Without this insight, I’d be going around thinking of a single platform as a one-stop shop. Now that I can spot and patch the elements that need fleshing out, I’m both a better learner, and a better source of advice for friends and family who want to learn languages without the same frustrations.

And Duolingo is even more effective now I know how I work best with it.

Language learning report card

My mini-adventures in Irish have shown me where I am as a language learner. They also confirm that I already have a healthy understanding of how I learn effectively: I instinctively bend materials into a shape that fits my learning process best. That’s a decent report card and a confidence-building boost for any linguist (and we are all prone to occasional self-questioning!).

More than that, though: Irish has given me a chance to assess and experiment with those techniques in a way that does not interfere directly with my core language learning routine. Casual study of something completely different is ideal no-risk ground to do a skills audit without fear of knocking regular study off balance. It’s not that the new language doesn’t matter – it’s just that we are not invested in it enough (yet) to worry about making mistakes in our first steps.

Weird and wonderful world

Beyond that, using a brand new language as a meta-learning exercise can open your eyes to diversity. We so easily come to think of certain patterns or forms in language as normal or given if we never push our limits beyond the known. Exposing yourself to what, at first, seems weird and wonderful, can only promote flexible thinking.

So it is with Irish, a verb-subject-object language, so unlike many other Indo-European subject-verb-object languages commonly studied. I now know that this is far from unusual, sharing the trait with almost a tenth of world languages.

With wonderful projects like #LangJam promoting micro-study of languages, there is no better time to relearn how you learn. So much self-knowledge can come from those few extra minutes in your day. Give something new a try. It’s worth it for the better meta!

 

A new calendar means new language learning resolutions. But how to stick to them? (Image from freeimages.com)

Five Ways to Stick to Language Learning Resolutions

We are well into the New Year now, and – if you are like me – you probably have a list of language learning resolutions as long as your arm. But doesn’t cold, damp January feel like the longest and hardest month for keeping to them? It can seem far too easy to get discouraged.

Never fear: here are some sure-fire tips for staying on track (or getting back onto it). 2019, we are coming for you!

Set reminders

Set your watch for timely language learning

If it’s a case of simply not remembering to stick to your routines, you can employ a little digital help. Setting training reminders on your devices is one of the easiest ways to enforce a new routine and begin habit-building.

My to-do and reminder app of choice is Wunderlist, which is both free, and goes far beyond a simple reminders app. For instance, you can subdivide your lists of tasks into separate sections, like simply ‘Languages’, or even one for each of your languages. It also allows for repeated tasks, which are perfect for daily and weekly learning tactics. Ticking these off regularly creates a real sense of ongoing achievement.

If you are a fan of Evernote (a fantastic, yet unsung hero of language learning!), you can use its reminder feature to similar effect. I use Evernote for longer-term planning, and setting reminders for regular reviews of planning documents is a resolution-saver.

Also worth checking out are Coach.me, Streaks and, of course, your plain old smartphone to-do / calendar apps. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best.

Tie your language learning to other habits

Our lives are already complex webs of routine and habit. Leverage that by linking your new, desired behaviours into what you already do.

Jogging is a routine you can easily tie new language learning habits to. (Image from freeimages.com)

Regular walk? Use that to listen to target language material like podcasts. Regular commute? Make sure you have plenty of foreign language Netflix downloaded for offline viewing. Spare minutes after getting ready for work? Do your 5-10 minutes of Anki or Duolingo.

You can find multiple points where your existing habits can anchor your new ones, too. With apps, taking advantage of a variety of platforms gives you multiple entry points in your daily routine. I use the Anki app on my bus and train journeys, but open up the desktop app for a quick revise before I start work at my desk.

If apps feature heavily in your language learning life, try chaining them. Piggy-back your new platforms on the back of an already well-established one. Already doing 5-10 minutes of Duolingo every day? Try coupling your Verb Blitz or Memrise right onto the tail end of that.

Enlist help

Strength in numbers - enlist the help of others in your language learning resolutions. (Image from freeimages.com)

Strength in numbers!

Personal goals shouldn’t be a lonely business. Do you have friends or relatives who can lend a hand? A supportive partner to remind you to do your daily Anki every day could work wonders! Tell them how much it means to you to succeed in your language learning goals. Getting them on board will be an invaluable source of encouragement.

A popular concept in peer coaching is the accountability partner. This is a friend or colleague you regularly meet up with to compare progress on goals. Each participant’s goals can be quite disparate, as the function of the accountability partner is to act as a sounding board and motivator. All you need is someone else who is also working on self-improvement goals for 2019.

You can also help others to learn while helping your own goals along, too. We learn, and consolidate previous learning, through teaching. Even sharing an overview of recent progress with others can help you to reflect critically on your own learning. With that in mind, why not commit to sharing progress in your resolutions with your nearest and dearest?

It’s also worth mentioning the immense value a professional coach can offer, if you really want to bring in the cavalry. I circumnavigated some sticky learning impasses in 2018 thanks to working on my goals with a coach.

Get right back on that horse!

Controversial fact: the “New Year” in “New Year’s Resolutions” is the least important part of all!

The truth is that New Year’s Resolutions are lent a bit of artificial magic by dint of that special date of 1st January.

If you have slipped up, there is no need to write off your goals until the next year. The best time to start again is always now. As with a diet, saying “I’ll be good from tomorrow” is a delay tactic that you should never fall for.

It might help to regauge how you divide up your blocks of time. Let’s face it: an entire year is a very long stretch for goal planning. Instead, productivity writer Brian Moran suggests a 12-week cycle, which has worked a treat for me.

Don’t burn out too soon

Finally, make sure to keep yourself mentally and physically in kilter. Pushing yourself too hard means burning out, or worse, coming to resent your own resolutions.

Learning to build pace and pause into your routine is as important a skill as fully-fledged language learning work. Too much rigidity can stifle the most enthusiastic learner – aim for self-kindness by allowing for fluidity in your plan.

Regular audits of your progress help, too. It may be that you set the bar too high for January 1st. Be honest with yourself. Can you scale back slightly before stepping up again later? Better to do that, than give up completely.

A recent example from my own 2019 challenges illustrates the need to be flexible, and revisit / reformulate resolutions on a regular basis. One ambitious target I set myself was to make at least one overseas trip a month to practise my languages. Now, that might sound difficult, but it is quite possible on a budget; there are a number of tools to source cheap flight and hotel dates. But, alas, at the mercy of dynamic travel pricing, it looked like I might miss that target in the very first month.

Not to worry: I’ve reformulated that goal as: make trips to at least 12 different overseas destinations in 2019. Resolution rescued!

Whatever your goals for 2019, let these guiding principles keep you on track for language learning success. Here’s to a fruitful twelve months… and beyond!

Language learning during busy times can be a bit of a blur. (Image from freeimages.com)

Give yourself a break! Fluid language learning planning for busy people

How was your November? Mine was busy. Very busy. As fulfilling and rewarding as they usually are, work, family and friends ended up filling nearly every minute. And, if you’re like me, you’ll find that life, in these busier moments, can knock your language learning right off course.

Tools for staying the course

Now, there are plenty of great ways to try and keep on course. My personal go-to tool for weekly language learning planning is Evernote. I take time each Sunday to plan in tasks for the next week, basing them on my progress over the previous seven days. During the week, Evernote acts as the brain centre for my learning.

In our busier moments, however, our plans can become fixed and rigid. And that rigidity can sometimes overwhelm us.

Over a quiet Summer, your 20-point weekly to-do plan might be a piece of cake. But when life gets hectic, you might find yourself ticking off just a quarter of your tasks. That, quite simply, is demotivating. You feel like a failure, not coping, struggling to fit in your learning. Confidence knocked, you slowly slide into achieving less and less.

The answer? You need to accept that you are not a machine operating at a constant level of capacity, and add some fluidity to your planning.

Your capacity is not constant, but varying

In my case, I’d fallen into a particularly poor habit that was so far from self-care. Tired after a long week, and in total chill-mode on a Sunday evening, I stopped sparing the time to evaluate my previous week and plan the next. Instead, I simply copied and pasted the previous week’s plan to the next week, blanking off the ticks. An unthinking carbon copy.

The problem here is that every week is different. Expecting to take on an equal amount of labour at a constant rate is, frankly, putting an unreasonable demand on yourself. Our capacity is finite, and life’s demands are always changing. Pretty soon, I found myself filling in fewer and fewer of those ticks from a copied list that was based on my capacity months ago, and not today.

It was a shortcut, but a mindless, inappropriate one. It was actually costing me progress in the long run.

My engine was overheating, and I needed cooling down.

Strip off to cool down

First things first: in this situation, you need to force a break. You need to get off the ride in order to cool down and catch your breath back. It’s perhaps obvious, but as with many obvious things, sometimes we need to be reminded about them.

The easiest way to do this is simply to strip your weekly tasks right down to a bare minimum. What this bare minimum is, is up to you. It should consist of the things that are most important to you in your language learning, but things you can comfortably do in ’emergency mode’, without exacting too much energy from yourself.

Be honest about what you can realistically do right now, given your current circumstances and life events. In my case, my skeleton language learning plan was stripped down to simply these two tasks:

Now, that was quite a step down from the cascade of weekly tasks up to that point. Gone – for now – was the pressure to fit in X podcasts, Y chapters of a book, Z iTalki lessons. Instead, I recognised my need for space, and committed to maybe 15-20 minutes of maintenance every day instead of the frantic daily hamster wheel.

Back to full throttle – with care

Maintain this level for a week or two – just long enough to gather your thoughts and reset your pace. Then, with a constant eye on your energy levels, start adding tasks back in every week. Stay mindful of stress, and remain realistic about what you can do if things are still manic in the rest of your life. With a little care, you can work your way back to full throttle in a matter of weeks.

It can be hard acknowledging that you need some breathing space. But it is a vital skill to master in avoiding burnout. Self-honesty is worth its weight in gold for the self-powered learner. It should certainly count in your arsenal of language learning tricks, just as much as memorisation techniques and lesson preparation. The fluid planning that comes from it will pay dividends compared to a rigid, unyielding taskmaster approach.

The coastline of Banff, Aberdeenshire

Finding a Language Retreat : Peace and Quiet to Reset Your Learning

Do you have a retreat? A place to escape to, just you and your books? Maybe you have a few places that earn that title.

I’ve spent a bit of time at one of mine this week. And it has reminded me of the importance of pace, pause and a change of scenery in learning.

Macduff, viewed from Banff, Aberdeenshire - a special place, and a language learning retreat of mine

Macduff, viewed from Banff, Aberdeenshire – a special place, and a language learning retreat of mine

Sometimes, our special places are not always those we choose for ourselves. Instead, life moves in mysterious directions, and we end up drifting along its currents to surprising destinations. So it is with Banffshire for me.

A born Midlander, family, friends and work have conspired together to move my centre of gravity to Scotland over the years. Specifically, to Edinburgh, a wonderful place to come to rest. But Banff and Macduff, nestling in a far-flung corner of Northeast Scotland, have exerted an ever-stronger draw in recent years.

Thanks in part to family circumstances, and partly to their natural beauty, Banff and Macduff have become important pins on my personal map.

As a Midlander, of course, the sea was always something special. Being landlocked, it was only on long trips to the faraway coastline that we ever managed to see it. Perhaps, then, that is why Banff and Macduff have captured my affection and imagination.

Reset with a Learning retreat

Why, then, are our special places so useful as learners?

Well, if you are anything like me, life tends to pull you in all directions. Work, social life, family commitments are fulfilling, but take an energy hit on the body and soul. Somewhere in between it all, we need to fit our passion for language learning. It can sometimes feel, though, that languages are playing second fiddle.

Sometimes, we just need a reset. And a retreat can do that.

Leaving behind the to-and-fro for a while, travelling light (apart from your trusty books, of course), can be a tonic. For a start, it’s a chance to focus on what you love most – learning languages. Calendar cleared, long journey ahead of you, you can get down to study as soon as your train / bus / plane leaves. It’s time to focus on what you learn, how you learn, cocooned by a peace and quiet that rarely comes in the day-to-day.

Choose your landscapes carefully, and they can really inspire, too. For me, Icelandic is an important, currently active language project. And there is something very Nordic about the sweeping seascapes and weather-battered heath on the journey up north to my selected spot of Scotland. Reading the Icelandic sagas (albeit in simplified form) and glancing through the train window, it is engrossing to imagine the action taking place in settings not unsimilar. It does not hurt that some of the stories actually wind their way through Scottish soil on the way, too.

A language retreat can connect your subject to the whole world around you, as well as free you from distractions in order to refocus on learning. Near or far, find and nurture that special place for you and your books. Your brain / blood pressure will thank you for it.

Hit upon the right system and learn languages like clockwork. (From freeimages.com)

Systematise your reading with Learning With Texts (LWT)

System can be everything in language learning. This was the thrust of an excellent talk by Lýdia Machová of Language Mentoring, which I was lucky enough to catch at the recent Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana. As chance would have it, a chat with a conference friend and subsequent recommendation for a piece of software – Learning With Texts – came together to give my own system a real shot in the arm.

As a lover of structure, I wasn’t doing too badly in terms of system and regularity in my learning. Tools like Evernote help me plan my language week around repeated tasks, for example. Likewise, language learning apps with a streak feature, like Duolingo, add to the regular-as-clockwork, systematic approach.

Feeling fuzzy

However, some of my routine tasks had a bit of a nebulous, woolly feel to them. They were a little fuzzy. Check boxes like “Spend half an hour with Book X/Y/Z” are not particularly rigid as system-builders. As such, it was sometimes difficult to monitor what I was actually doing in my foreign languages.

Now, what I loved about Lydia’s talk was the specificity of the sample systems she presented. In particular, one of these broke weekly to-do tasks down into the four skill areas of reading, writing, listening and speaking. These will be extremely familiar to UK language teachers. Of course, it is not the only way to granulate language learning. But it does offer a way to focus on particular areas of profess, rather than more general tasks like “do a chapter of a book”.

Reading resonated with me as a key area to systematise. Like many polyglot friends, I love reading in my foreign languages. But sometimes, my approach is a little haphazard. I’ll read an article here, a chapter of a book there, an easy reader in between. I was benefitting, of course, but couldn’t say exactly how (or how much). Or, more importantly, I couldn’t see if there was room for improvement or harder work. I needed a system! Lydia’s talk confirmed this, but how would I systematise my reading?

Mining fellow minds

The great thing about specialist and enthusiast conferences is the confluence of similar minds. Through socialising with others, we learn as much from fellow attendees as from speakers. And so, it was through a chance encounter with a new conference friend that I learnt about Learning With Texts, a free, browser-based software for learning foreign languages through reading.

If you have come across the Lingq website before, the concept behind Learning With Texts will be very familiar. The interface presents a foreign text for reading. All words are clickable, and start off blue for ‘not met before’. As you read, you either click to deselect the word if you already understand it, or look it up and add it to your bank of new vocabulary. As such, it is both a support for reading, and a tool for vocabulary mining. A nifty Anki export feature complements the latter.

Using Learning With Texts to read an article in Icelandic

Using Learning With Texts to read an article in Icelandic

Instantly, my fuzzy ‘read something in the target language’ has become a lot more concrete. Now, for example, I can set myself the task to use LWT daily to read the top article on news site mbl.is. From the fuzz rises my system!

Fiddly but fun

It might all sound a little too easy to be true. And, true to life, it is at times a less than perfectly smooth journey, although your perseverance pays off.

The particular rub with Learning With Texts is its slightly tricky installation process. Although it is browser-based, it needs to be set up on a local server, which many non-tech specialists will not be familiar with. It’s not a huge stretch to follow the step-by-step instructions on the Learning With Texts site, but it might be advisable to enlist a techie’s help if you are completely unfamiliar with servers and such like. In my case, I am running it on the pre-installed Apache server on Mac OS, which means there was no extra step to install a local server package first.

After initial setup, the interface is quirky, but fairly intuitive after some poking and playing. Once you’ve figured out how to add dictionaries for your languages, you can start adding and reading the texts of your choice. It’s not a perfect or foolproof system – I experiences a couple of issues with character encoding and certain dictionary sites, for example. This seems due to some sites not using UTF-8 (a character encoding format with support for multiple alphabets and characters with diacritics). On the whole, though, you can work around these issues with a bit of trial and error.

For all its foibles, it’s a fun process when things are up and running. It feels very hands-on, full-on language geek, if you like that kind of thing. (I do!) Thanks to my fellow conference-goer Ondřej for bringing it to my attention. My system got just that little bit better.

Impostor syndrome can leave you feeling exposed and anxious. (Picture from freeimages.com)

Impostor syndrome? Prescribe yourself some polyglot community!

This week, I’m blogging from the grand hall of the Union Hotel in Ljubljana, Slovenia, as an excitable, kid-in-a-candy-store, first-time attendee of the annual Polyglot Conference. As expected, it’s been a bit of a language wonderland. I’ve been stuffed full of fresh ideas and inspiration for new projects.

But one concrete lesson it has taught me is this: impostor syndrome, that fear of not being good enough, is pretty much ubiquitous. However, more importantly, community is the antidote for it.

The sumptuous hall at the Grand Union Hotel, Ljubljana, venue for the Polyglot Conference 2018.

The sumptuous hall at the Grand Union Hotel, Ljubljana, venue for the Polyglot Conference 2018.

Now, I am naturally quite a shy person. A shy polyglot – what a frustrating thing to be. All those languages, and all that extra anxiety speaking to new people! Needless to say, it was quite a leap to book my conference ticket. But it was completely worth it, not least for the “people practice”, as I like to call it. An especially valuable observation has been a tonic for my confidence as a passionate polyglot.

Impostor alert

You see, imposter syndrome is BIG. We all feel it from time to time, even the most outwardly confident people. The phenomenon of internet celebrity plays its part – sometimes it’s hard to feel good enough when our heroes and idols appear to be such runaway successes.

It is that feeling that you are not on the same shelf as all those other impressive people. You’re a pretender to the throne, just blagging, a bit of a fraud. You can’t really speak all those languages. You know just a bit at best, and would crumble under scrutiny. In short, you aren’t really a fully-fledged polyglot – just a wannabe who can say a few words.

But let me tell you two things. Firstly, you are absolutely not alone in feeling this. Secondly, none of those fears are based in truth.

Look yourself in the face

One wonderful thing about the polyglot community is that it acts like a mirror. Be bold enough to look into it, and you see yourself reflected back multiple times. You realise the universality of your experience.

Put a few hundred language enthusiasts in a room, and it leaps out at you. We are all achieving, succeeding, thriving. In different ways, at different levels, yes. But nobody is a fraud. Revelling in a love of language learning is all it takes to be part of this club. There is no such thing as the fully-fledged, perfectly shaped polyglot.

Something quite sweet happened to me at the conference, which confirmed the truth of this.

Anti-social security

At the best of times, socialising with hundreds of unknown people is daunting. Very few of us are natural schmoozers. And so it was that I found myself, lunch plate in hand, hovering alone around groups of people that seemed so much better at small talk than I am.

Serendipitously, my forlorn wanderings were noticed. I was rescued by a kindly (and similarly floating) delegate, and naturally, we got chatting about our language journeys. It was an easy point of conversation; all delegates bore self-decorated name badges, including sticky flags representing our languages and proficiency.

A little push…

The thing was, my conference friend started to mention her experience of languages not on my name badge. Each time, I piped up: oh, I know a bit of that! And each time, the reply was the same – so where is your flag? Exasperated by my explanation that I just don’t know enough of it!, she dragged me to the table of flags and insisted that I add them.

Shortly afterwards, we found ourselves in the language room, an area with designated tables for a common ‘big’ languages to encourage speaking. Thanks to the extra flags, I ended up having conversations in old / discontinued / parked languages I never expected to use.

And guess what? I coped!

What’s more, nobody else was the perfect, native-fluency wizard I built them up to be. We simply shared the joy of language. I spoke to people who shared my fears, felt too shy to speak, but once prompted, just couldn’t stop communicating. Understanding each other’s common experiences, polyglot friends were patient, kind and encouraging. All it takes is a bit of self-belief to get going (and sometimes, a little push from someone who can spark that it in you).

You are good enough. Be sure of it.

A vast array of colourful baubles, as varied as your own mass sentences can be. (Picture from freeimages.com)

DIY mass sentences technique : self-made repetitions for grammar mastery

I’ve talked about the utility of mass sentences previously, including the vast resources at Tatoeba and Glossika. It can be particularly helpful in drilling language patterns through high exposure to model content and multiple repetitions. However, it’s possible to replicate some of that power under your own steam.

I got the following idea from a fellow member of a Facebook language challenge group I’m a member of. Now, his particular sticking point was German cases, but the idea lends itself to all sorts of material you need to master.

With the help of his teacher, he created a set of ‘model sentences’ as a corpus of focussed learning material. In this case, the sentences chosen covered all of the permutations for cases with articles, for example. Fellow Germanists will recognise the challenge of learning those as a beginner! For instance, this set could include:

  • Der Hund kommt. (The dog is coming – nominative)
  • Ich sehe den Hund. (I see the dog – accusative)
  • Ich gebe dem Hund ein Eis. (I give the dog an ice cream – dative)
  • Das ist der Korb des Hundes. (That is the dog’s basket – genitive)

They can be much more complex than that, of course, including adjectives, prepositions that take certain cases, and so on. The important thing is that they are clear examples of the grammatical points the learner is finding tricky.

Drilling your mass sentences

Once the set is complete, the sentences can be added to your drill tool of choice. That is, unsurprisingly, Anki in most of our cases in the group (it helps having an Anki wizard as the group founder!). You could equally well use a tool like Quizlet or Educandy.

Of course, they can be a ‘mass’ as you like, incorporating from just a few sentences to hundreds. But you should have at least one sentence per grammatical point you’re trying to drill. The only golden rule is to check your sentences with a teacher before you start to drill them. You want an error-free collection of source material!

Conquering the foothills

Since I am currently learning Icelandic, I had plenty of opportunity to put this into practice recently. Four cases, definite and indefinite forms of nouns and both strong and weak adjective declensions had me pretty much stumped for months. The perfect testing ground.

Having started with my sentence stash a couple of weeks ago, I can already see significant progress. Finally, I’m latching on to some of the patterns thanks to repetition. Somehow, those cases are sticking!

Example of DIY mass sentences in Icelandic drilling masculine nouns in the dative case.

Sample of my DIY mass sentences in Icelandic (here, drilling masculine nouns and adjectives in the dative case).

Like all techniques, naturally, it is no magic pill. It can be a gradual and sometimes uneven process, for many reasons. For one thing, our brains are attracted to certain elements first and foremost, partly due to links to other material we’ve happened across. Mine particularly likes the masculine indefinite accusative adjective ending, which reminds me of the German -en ending (German is my first and strongest foreign language). The Icelandic nýr > nýjan (new) maps pretty neatly onto the German neu > neuen.

Whatever the cause, though, that tiny victory is a little foothill of the vast mountain range of Icelandic that I’ve managed to conquer. I now proudly seize upon any chance to use masculine nouns in the accusative when chatting to my tutors! (I know – I will have to move on from that habit at some point…) With a bit more mass sentences graft, I’m hoping that they all start to fall into place soon.

If you’ve not done so before, have a go at making your own sentence corpus to learn from. Incorporate your own most fiendishly difficult grammatical sticking points. You can reap some of the benefits of a mass sentences technique without relying on third-party word banks or subscription sites. Not only that, but you’ll increase your recall power through this hands-on approach to making your own materials.

Adding a language is like adding another colour to your communication swatch! (Picture from freeimages.com)

Language learning, fast and slow : one-track hack or polyglot glutton?

As a language learning addict, the idea of having multiple projects on the go at the same time is always appealing. But is there a sensible maximum to the number of languages we should be studying simultaneously?

The topic came up on a very interesting recent Hangout with Benny Lewis, the mastermind behind the Add One Challenge. Quite rightly, the general advice was that progress will be faster if you focus on one at a time. It stands to reason – we only have a finite mental capacity, and if you want to see results fast, you should direct it all in one direction.

Learning: fast and slow

But there are two differing attitudes towards learning in competition, here. The key selling point to much of the language hacking approach is ‘results fast‘. There is nothing wrong with that. I have used it to great effect myself. Efficiency and speed are fantastic study skills to develop if you have particularly practical (or urgent) goals in language learning.

By contrast, there is also a much more gradual approach to languages. Instead of a focus on short-term working knowledge, it emphasises the joy of the learning process. It regards learning it as a gentler method of layering knowledge upon knowledge over time. It is about finding fun in the detail, revelling in the rules. Furthermore, the lower priority on speed means that it supports multiple language learning a little better, if that is what you want to do.

There is room for both of these methods in the same language learning life, of course. The learner can chop and change according to circumstance and need. Need working fluency for a trip? Choose the fast route. Greedy linguist who wants a taste of everything? The slowly-but-surely approach is an excellent option.

Back to school

After all, early experience of languages in school is frequently in the mould of the gradual grammar crammer. For example, at my own secondary school, all students studied French and German for their first two years. Later, when the time came to take our options, we selected the one language we wanted to continue with.

Practices are similar in other European schools, with Icelandic students learning English and Danish, for example, or German students learning English and Spanish. Learning a couple of languages at a time in your own time is no unusual feat – kids have been doing it for decades.

The more the better?

There is even an academic argument for adding multiple languages into your study routine. Closely related languages, for instance, can be part of a larger voyage of discovery, opening up a whole language family. The resulting bird’s eye view can give a truly deep understanding of each individual member of that family, as you begin to make connections and colour between the lines.

What’s more, human languages share particular characteristics, regardless of family. There are common, abstract concepts across them, like nouns, verbs, tenses, moods (although they may appear vastly different, and be given differing names and explanations). Experience with the mechanics and terminology in one tongue can support your understanding in the other(s).

With a bit of organisational panache and sensible separation, it’s quite possible to handle multiple language projects. As always with matters of the mind, though, avoiding burnout is paramount. Take care, and you can keep that long-term, polyglot passion a joy, rather than a drain. And there is no need to give up that lexical gluttony, if it floats your boat!

If a big draw of language learning is enjoying the process, does it necessarily matter how quickly you progress? As linguists, we have the tools for language learning, fast and slow. Employ – and enjoy – them both.

Sidenote: the title for this post was inspired by the utterly fascinating “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Read it for an insight into our truly two-track brains!

Trying to complete a Rubik's Cube - a case for micromastery?

Micromastery: chunking and rationalising your language learning

Always on the lookout for new learning hacks and tips, I’ve been digging into Robert Twigger’s Micromastery this week. The premise of the book is simple: learn new skills by breaking them down into manageable chunks and deal with them in a systematic, gradual way.

Six steps to mastery

The system is not so much a concrete plan for learning, as a set of principles to break your learning into pieces, and conceptualise and organise your first steps with them. The author uses a six-part approach as a framework to your first steps in a skill:

  • The entry trick
  • Overcoming rub-pat barriers
  • Background support
  • Payoff
  • Repeatability
  • Experimentation

And, while a bit of this is reinventing the wheel, I found them to be a good reminder of the importance of a structured approach in learning. As a sometimes overeager linguist, a Micromastery approach could organise my educational nourishment into regular light bites, rather than a colic-inducing binge.

So how can these Micromastery tricks help us to learn languages? The book doesn’t explicitly deal with languages, so you’ll have to do a bit of rethinking. But those six conecpts can provide a handy guide your first steps in a new language. Here’s my take on just a couple of the six concepts above.

Entry trick

The ‘entry trick’ rang bells immediately. Specifically, Twigger describes this an easy way in to the skill that pays off immediately. For example, it could be learning to balance on a static board before launching into full-blown surfing.

Where have we heard that before? Well, in languages, it mirrors advice from Benny Lewis and others to start your language learning journey with simple, rote scripts. Like stabilisers on a bike, they support solid skills-building whilst protecting the student from the stress of full-blown grammar and vocab cramming.

The chunk-by-chunk system also lends itself well to thematic language learning like this. Rather than throwing yourself at an amorphous mass of grammar, focus on several, well defined themes to script out, week by week.

True to the author’s promise for these entry tricks, there is the immediate payoff with using scripts. You quickly learn something practical and useful straight away. The reward is both self-satisfaction, and, hopefully, the ability to impress target language speakers early on in your study.

The rub-pat barrier

Twigger’s second point is particularly pertinent to language learning, too. Essentially, the rub-pat barrier is the author’s way of describing things that are difficult to do together (as in rubbing your tummy and patting your head simultaneously).

Now, language learning is full of these moments to overcome. If you’re anything like me, then conversing and not panicking is a pretty important multitasking trick to master in the early stages! You can probably think of many more, such as speaking without pause and not getting verb / case endings wrong, for example.

By anticipating these ‘rub-pat barriers’ before we come up against them, we can prepare ourselves. For example, speaking crib sheets help me to feel I have a safety net in target language conversation. Moreover, mindfulness techniques can be great anxiety-busters – I’ve had great success with the excellent Headspace.

The real rub (!) is that you usually have to experience these barriers before you know they’re there. And you only find that out by throwing yourself into the skill. Sometimes it might be possible to foresee these kinds of difficulty when planning a new skill routine, but you’re a gifted learner if you can spot them all before they rear their ugly heads.

Background support

New skills require more than just a learner – they take materials, other people, paraphernalia and so on. Precisely these things are what the book dubs background support. This encompasses the resources – human and otherwise – that will form the scaffolding around your language project.

I did appreciate the nod to individual circumstances here. The truth is, sadly, that not everyone can afford the equipment to learn certain skills (the author uses surfing as an example). Fortunately for linguists, materials need not cost the earth; sometimes, they cost nothing at all.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, other people can form our background support as linguists. Making sure you have a good buddy network to check in on you – even recruiting family and friends who aren’t learning with you – can help keep you accountable and on track.

Repeatability and Experimentation

And then, we have two of the most vital skills in the set for linguists: repeatability and experimentation. The ability to repeat a skill is the end goal of the linguist: to communicate, to perform language X/Y/Z countless times in the future. And, with each act of recall and review, those neural pathways strengthen and extend. If anything, the notion of repeatability is a reminder to work very regular, active use of the language into your daily routine.

Experimentation goes hand in hand with this, and maps onto the particularly exciting stage of language learning: linguistic creativity. It’s that moment when you start to substitute words in your rote sentences to create brand new, unique utterances. In Twigger’s example of baking, you might start to play around with new ingredients. In languages, you push yourself to geek and tweak the framework material you learnt in your scripts.

Micromastery – a starting point for your own approach

Clearly, the book’s core principles have offer a guiding hand when devising your study plan. Choose your chunks carefully and plan your study calendar bearing the six points in mind, and the system could really be of benefit. Bear in mind, however, that language learning is a cumulative process; at some point, these individual chunks need to join up. The approach is perhaps a little sketchy on forming the whole skill from the constituent parts.

However, the whole idea does speak to the polymath in me. As a general framework for learning multiple, cross-curricular skills, it’s concise and based on common sense. There are elements in there that lend themselves to any kind of learning.

The book has received mixed reviews on Amazon. In part, this might be down to the slightly woolly examples the author uses to illustrate the system. Drawing circles, surfing and baking somehow fail to light the imagination, and a bit of extrapolation to your own world is necessary.

With a bit of effort to graft the ideas onto your own learning goals, Micromastery is well worth a read. There’s much to motivate here, if only to reiterate the importance of clear objectives at the start of your journey.