A forest of trees - a good analogy for the trees and branches of closely related languages

Studying closely related languages can be a help, not a hindrance

Studying two or more languages can be a challenging undertaking. But when they are closely related languages, instinct suggests that the similarity could be a source of confusion. “Don’t you ever get mixed up?” people ask. And, truthfully, from personal experience, you do. Particularly in the early stages.

But then again, so do bilingual children, as a completely normal part of learning two languages at home. And they go on to develop perfectly separate, fully-functioning bubbles of language as adults. Human beings are well-equipped to learn similar – but different – skills without one collapsing into the other. The mixed-up myth has long been burst for bilinguals.

In fact, a focus on close language pairs can be a blessing in many ways, rather than a curse. Whether it’s Polish and Russian, French and Spanish, Norwegian and Icelandic, or some other mix, there are plenty of reasons not to worry!

Highlighting gaps

One language can support the other by throwing light on gaps in your vocabulary. For instance, if you’re constantly saying a word in language X when you try to speak language Y, it’s quite likely that it’s missing in the second language for you. If it’s not missing, at the very least, it needs a bit of reinforcing.

This happened constantly in Polish for me – I’d reach for ‘unfortunately’, and only the Russian к сожалению would come out. It didn’t take long to reach for an online dictionary and learn the Polish (niestety) instead.

It’s helpful to test yourself on these gaps when you review vocabulary in one language. Interrogate yourself when you look up words or recall items. – So, Spanish for goat is la cabra… Do I know what that is in French, too? Perhaps even keep a bilingual vocabulary list in Excel, or your best Moleskine. This way, your stronger language can become the yardstick for the weaker one. “I can say this in language X – but can I say it in language Y too?”

Familiar grammar

Closely related languages usually share a great overlap in grammar principles. As a most basic example, knowing that French has masculine and feminine nouns also sets you up nicely for Spanish.

Similarities continue as the level gets more complex. For example, there is a fair stretch of common ground when it comes to using the subjunctive in French and Spanish. Learn one, and you have a head start on the other. At the very least, there will be fewer nasty surprises.

Deep understanding – a historical perspective

Knowing how related languages changed in different ways from a ‘parent’ language can also be an invaluable crutch for learning. Through an understanding of how particular sounds developed across different languages, you can often guess at the meaning of new words.

The Germanic sound shifts are a good example. If you can see that /p/ in English and Dutch often developed as /f/ in German, then you can make a better guess at what AffePfeffer and tief mean*.

This kind of cross-history view helps foster a really deep understanding of a language. Rather than just answering what and how, it starts to provide answers for why languages are a certain way. That’s certainly a step beyond basic holiday French / German / Spanish!

More than just language

This naturally leads to the notion that language is so much more than just words. The language you are learning is embedded in a social context, which has similarly developed on the historical axis. If you explore backwards far enough in your related languages, you can follow their twists and turns along important cultural and political shifts. Getting to know these ‘pivot points’ in the shared history of two languages can be a wonderful source of insight into the context behind the language.

For example, one ‘standard’ variety of written Norwegian – bokmål – is extremely similar to Danish. The other ‘official’ variety of Norwegian, nynorsk, preserves a more archaic feel, its vocabulary just a little reminiscent of highly conservative Icelandic. Understanding why, and delving deeper into the conflicts between Norway’s standard languages, rewards the learner with a much richer understanding of geopolitical history.

Whatever your reasons, don’t worry too much about taking on related languages. Laugh at the mix-ups and brush off the bumps in the road – the pay-off in extra learning is more that worth it in the end.

*They are monkey (ape), pepper and deep.

Preparing for GCSE means copious notes!

A GCSE Too Far? Giving Languages Their Point Back

Following this week’s GCSE results, there has been the usual seep of comments putting a downer on languages in schools. Simon Jenkins’ Guardian article presented a particularly cynical version of this view, which provoked (no doubt as intended) some thorny reaction.

But through the indignation language-lovers feel reading such comments, there are some difficult lessons. The sensation “little point to learning languages” headline is supported by an isolationist British narrative in some of the popular press, and picked up by parents and students alike. “Having a point” is felt subjectively – if the audience decides it doesn’t, then no amount of utility in a subject will matter.

Testing the waters

However, Jenkins enters more interesting waters when it comes to the delivery and testing of languages. His line goes that the establishment wrongly chooses to revere languages, as they are so easy to “test, quantify and regiment” as discreet units. As such, they fit neatly into our our hyper-regulated world of numbers, grades and economic comparisons of worth.

And here is the problem; as living, breathing, real-world systems, languages wither when we isolate them as objects for testing. No wonder that their utility fades away in the transformation to the exam paper. Pupils and parents have keen noses; they can sniff out those “exam only” subjects.

Content and Language Integrated Learning

Increasing the authenticity of learning materials, and in which settings we use them, is key. This is one of the core principles of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), an approach that may just be able to give languages their ‘point’ back. CLIL seeks to extend foreign language teaching beyond the language classroom and into the world in the best possible cross-curricular way. The model is simple: use the foreign language to teach other subjects in school.

International schools have followed a similar approach for decades, teaching through English. And plenty of research such as this study by the University of Gothenburg suggest that the benefits are felt in other languages as well as English. Nonetheless, it has little foothold in schools around the English-speaking world.

Breaking free from GCSE

For now, it seems like an unfeasible, colossal paradigm shift to start using a method like this in British schools. It is incredibly hard to break Modern Foreign Language teaching out of the chains of the exam testing system. The current setup demands hard numbers for comparing, listing, economising. There is little room to manoeuvre in the current climate. But for the survival of the subject, languages must cease to be an isolated, ‘made-for-testing’ discipline.

Nonetheless, there are things we can do to encourage CLIL principles outside the curriculum. Finding personal meaning is a large chunk of realising utility. It’s a strategy that can lead to great success in making listening material suddenly more accessible. Likewise, coaxing students to research their favourite topics via foreign languages may be one route to breaking the subject free.

As common as MOOC

As independent language learners, we can also bring these ideas directly into our own learning. In a world of MOOCs and free online training courses, there is no shortage of cross-curricular material in languages other than English. Khan Academy is available in Spanish, offering courses in Maths, IT and Science. Coursera has a huge catalogue of free online courses across a range of languages. For example,  why not try learning some Educational Psychology in Brazilian Portuguese?  Or perhaps you fancy learning iOS app development in Spanish at Udemy.

A little commitment is a good first step. Teaching languages? Try to introduce your students to some of these resources. Learning languages yourself? Pick a course in your target language, and start expanding your mind! With some canny thinking, we can free languages from that ‘academic use only’ box.

A model of a human brain, seat of the memory

Memory tricks to SUPERCHARGE your language learning!

Memory is a serious business. It’s a sport, which even has its own world championships. And this is nothing new, either; experts and sages have been teaching memory master techniques for centuries.

New research confirms that there is nothing new under the sun. The memory palace technique, a favourite of the Ancient Greeks, can dramatically improve recall, according to a recent article. This particular technique has a long and unbroken pedigree. As the ‘method of loci‘, it was a staple of medieval scholars, eager to memorise long tracts. Esteemed rhetoricians taught the technique to royalty, politicians and orators, who would use it to rattle off rousing speeches, full of learned facts.

Constructing your memory palace

So what is the memory palace technique? It involves the construction of a mental geography, which could reflect a real-world place like your home (or a palace, if you’re lucky), or be completely imaginary. The learner mentally deposits objects for memorisation around this location, often in a specific order. To recall the items later, all the learner must do is mentally ‘walk’ around the place.

Because of the element of order, the technique is brilliant for remembering a particular sequence of words. But more generally, it taps into our visual and spatial thinking centres, making the act of learning – and remembering – more of a whole-brain activity.

Multiple Memory LOCI

For the polyglot linguist, perhaps the best way to approach this technique is in the plural: memory places rather than a memory place. Friends often ask me: how do you avoid getting confused between all those languages? Well, by constructing different location markers as an aide memoire, it’s possible to maintain more separation between the pots of vocabulary in our brains.

This kind of location marking for target language vocab is nothing new or revolutionary. You might have already used the excellent Linkword courses, or similar associative techniques, for learning vocabulary. Usually, this route to memorisation involves visualising a scene that represents both the target language word and the English translation. For example, for l’eglise (church) in French, you take what it sounds like – legless – and construct a strong visual image that combines it with a church. The image of a parishioner turning up blind drunk (legless) to church is probably enough to make sure you remember it in future!

Vocabulary in situ

However, there is also an element of location marking built into the Linkword system. If a word is a cognate, and very close to the English translation, then the instruction is this: visualise the word with a stereotyped symbol of the target language (a bull for Spanish, a Bratwurst for German and so on). In the absence of a funny English sound-alike word, this ‘native marker’ technique is useful for creating an image where there would otherwise be none.

You can apply this technique as a multilingual learner, too. How do you keep five or more words for ‘car’ separate, for example? Well, one way is to visualise the word in the setting of the target language country. For Polish, picture a typical medieval old town as you drive your open-top car down the street. You pass someone on the street who starts shouting – he has the SAME HOOD as you do! (Samochód = car in Polish.) Cross the border into Germany, and drive on to Berlin. You travel under the Brandenburger Tor, where suddenly, your car starts driving itself. It’s an AUTOmatic card! (Auto = car in German.) 🚗🚗🚗

Supercharge with storytelling

That’s all very well for single words. But then, you can then start to embellish your locations. You can turn them into stories to add related words in the target language. For instance, what happens in Poland when you see the same hood guy? He walks over, kicks one of your wheels and calls you a COW, OH! (koło = wheel in Polish.) Meanwhile, in Germany, the wheels on your AUTOmatic car start to light up – impressed passers-by shout RAD, man! (Rad = wheel in German.) In effect, you are now building up a memory palace / method of loci in order to remember a series of related words in the target language.

Embrace stereotypes!

OK, so this advice isn’t generally advised for the everyday! Stereotypes can be annoying. But they actually work wonders with this method. The more hackneyed and comedic, the more comedic resonance your visualisations will have. That gives them salience, and makes them more resistant to forgetting. So don’t beat yourself up too much for visualising strings of garlic, or pizzas and sunglasses.

Above all, this is a technique to have fun with. So construct your place, be it palace or playa, and fill it with symbols and stories. It worked for the Ancient Greeks and countless others after them, so see if can work wonders for your memory, too!

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!

Time is precious

Time to learn? Fitting languages into busy lives

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

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

Using ‘dead’ time

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

Anki decks

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

Reading practice

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

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


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

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

Casting a wider net

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

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

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

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

Don’t overdo it

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

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

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