A bit of mindfulness can help the study sun break through

Mindfulness tools for language learners

Even if languages are your passion, everybody needs a break. Pacing learning well is the hallmark of the efficient student, and avoiding burnout should be a top priority for polyglots.

Mindfulness techniques – finding balance and quiet in the now – can be a true source of pace and ease for those who constantly keep the heat turned up on learning. Thankfully, they are now almost ubiquitous in their availability, and finding guides to them has never been easier.

Having had an unusually hectic few weeks (even for me), I’ve been very grateful for them of late. I wanted to share a couple of tools I’ve used in the past few weeks – one new to me, another old faithful. Together, they’ve helped me to introduce some mindful pauses into my routine, and I hope they help you too.

Calm

My most recent app addition is the rich, ambient Calm, available for both iOS and Android. Calm recently snagged an App of the Year award from Apple, and the platform has given it a lot of exposure through feature ads recently.

At its most basic level, the app provides guided meditations paired with beautiful, animated backdrops with relaxing natural soundtracks. Paired with features such as timed meditation reminders (these couple up excellently with the Pomodoro technique, if you use that), it gives you a restful place to flee to between heavy study sessions and a helping hand to remember to clock out.

Window on your language world

However, the canny linguist can repurpose Calm to get even more from it. Although Calm’s beautiful scenic meditations are pretty generic, they can easily be related to various target language cultures. Mountains, forests, beaches – with a little imagination, you can fit them into any linguistic setting. Pick one, prop your device on your desk, and you are studying next to a window on the world of your language.

All very well, but it isn’t just about looking pretty. Using Calm in this way can help tailor a very specific learning environment. And that, in turn, helps to block off and demarcate your time into discrete chunks of language learning time. Switch on your calming Alpine view, for example, and your brain is primed to expect some intense German tuition. Bring up your beach, and hey presto! You’re ready for some Spanish. Let Calm evoke the soul of your language (however clichéd a version of that soul!).

Mindfulness study zone with an Alpine view

Mindfulness study zone with a lakeside view

Headspace

My other indispensable digital escape pod continues to be the wonderful Headspace. If Calm can help improve your working environment, Headspace specifically targets the spaces between sessions. Providing short, meditative exercises ideal for even the shortest work breaks, regular use can be a real head saver. As a beginner’s way into mindfulness techniques, it is hard to beat.

I find it invaluable as a route to winding back down after an intense period of learning (or working the day job, for that matter). In the heat of it, too, Headspace can be a lifeline. As long as you can find somewhere to safely switch off for five minutes with your headphones, Headspace is there for you. It can be a very constructive use of time locked in the office loo!

Even in free mode, Headspace can be incredibly helpful with its course of ten starter sessions. But for learners who decide to subscribe, there are some very special treats. Courses on mindfulness for studying, anxiety and more play right into the language learner’s greatest mental and emotional needs.

Freemium experience

Both Calm and Headspace offer some free content, with a greater range available on subscription. For now, I’ve found that the free offerings suit me just fine, although I have subscribed to the premium tier of Headspace in the past, and it is excellent.

Calming scenes for real-life linguists

In other news, I was lucky enough to spend time in my own, ultimate, real-life mindfulness scene this weekend. With cheap, short flights, Iceland is an easy hop away from Scotland, and perfect for a whistlestop language escape. If quick getaways like this are possible, they are the ultimate way to let off steam and immerse yourself in your passion. And with views like this, I never forget why learning Icelandic can be so rewarding.

Gullfoss - the ultimate mindfulness scene

Gullfoss, Iceland

Edinburgh Castle is a stunning backdrop to the Edinburgh Fringe each August

Edinburgh Fringe for Language Lovers: Shows for Linguists!

Edinburgh Fringe has filled the streets of Scotland’s capital for another colourful August. There are literally thousands of shows available to see. The sheer number of them means that there is bound to be something of interest to everyone. And that includes linguists!

After trawling through the masses on offer, here are some promising-sounding events for students / teachers / fans of languages. Inevitably, it’s the ‘mainstream’ languages of French, German and Spanish that crop up most. But amongst them, there are shows that will appeal to non-speakers, too. And that’s a great excuse to take along a friend or two to spread the language love!

French

The festival can’t get enough of Piaf this year. There are at least five cabaret shows featuring chansons from the renowned songstress! They include:

If you prefer your music folksy, then a set from Les Poules à Coulin looks like a good bet. For dance / physical theatre with a French slant, check out “La Maladie de la Mort d’Après Marguerite Duras”. Check the website, though, as some performances may be in English translation.

Something that really captures the imagination is a bilingual puppetry and storytelling event in French. “The Wonderful World of Lapin” looks like a particularly cute way to introduce the little ones to a bit of français. Most likely, quite a few big ‘uns would also find it magical!

German

German is a little under-represented compared to French (keine Überraschung, sadly!). However, there are a couple of interesting listings that might be worth a punt.

Absurdist theatre your bag? Well, there’s a show for you, performed in German with some English explanations. “Leere Zeit – Idle Time” is on at theSpace on the Mile, a venue that promises a global aspect to its line-up.

For some more classical, musical entertainment, you can enjoy Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos in the church setting of Broughton St Mary’s.

Spanish

As ubiquitous as Piaf is for French, you can’t seem to get away from Flamenco at this year’s Fringe. There are three shows that feature the quintessential Spanish musical / dance style:

The poetry of Lorca takes centre stage at “Frost and Lorca”. The event features artwork by Sir Terry Frost, inspired by the Spanish writer; the presentation is in Spanish and English, so should be suitable for non-hispanist friends!

And for a proper melting pot of storytelling, try “Mimi’s Suitcase”, which blends English, Spanish and Persian to explore themes of identity and displacement.

Even the good old Edinburgh Ghost Tour gets the Spanish treatment this year. “Tour de fantasmas en español” sounds like a fun way to get a stock Edinburgh tourist tick and practise español at the same time!

Russian

Although it’s chiefly English-language comedy, Abi Robert’s show Anglichanka (Englishwoman) is worth a mention. Abi spent considerable time in Russia, and weaves her many tall tales into a wonderfully hilarious hour of laughter. I caught her performing a similar show at my very first Edinburgh Fringe (quite) some years ago, and it’s great to see her back at the festival with more of that hugely funny format!

Culture (without the language)

As well as the above shows, there are hundreds more without a specific language hook, but of cultural interest to linguaphiles. Russia is under the spotlight in several satirical / topical shows, for example.

Less controversially, Russian classical music is on the programme at a number of concerts. Scottish Sinfonia’s line-up sounds like quite a treat. Likewise, you can learn about imagined lives in Russia at theatre events like “The Girl Who Loved Stalin”.

If the aim is to steep yourself in the culture of Russia (or many other target language cultures), then there is a wealth of choice.

Edinburgh Fringe: take a punt

I’ve always found that the best way to enjoy the Fringe is to take a risk. With shows priced so reasonably, you can easily try something you wouldn’t normally see. Thought you hated Piaf? Give her a chance at one of the several shows on offer. Irritated by flamenco? Then give the Scottish twist on it a chance! Personally, the German absurdist theatre tempts the risk-taker in me. It could be worth a shot! And if not, then at least it gets me out of the house for an hour or two…

Have you managed to catch any of the shows above? Are there any others that you’d recommend? Please share in the comments below!

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

Language learning isn’t finite; it’s a lifelong process, and isn’t meant to have an end. As such, languages never count as ‘finished’ or ‘learnt’, but require upkeep and maintenance.

With this in mind, I’ve been planning some exciting mini-trips to German-speaking towns over the past few months. Since graduating from university, I’d taken my German for granted a bit. As my first, and strongest foreign language, it was a bit of an oversight that needed some correction. And, looking in the right places with the right tools, you can unearth some real bargains, and make maintenance breaks a regular thing.

Bremen was my first German weekend of 2017, back in May. It was a great way to ease back into travelling the country – an intimate, friendly and compact city well served by budget flights. I loved every minute of it, and it left me ready for the big boss of German cities: Berlin.

Why Berlin?

As a student, I’d shunned Germany to focus on Austria and Switzerland. The southern German-speaking countries had a special draw to me then, with my fascination of dialect. (Germany is just as rich in dialects, though – something I overlooked as a student!) Berlin was a chance to redress the years of negligence, and really get to know this icon of Germany.

Zip in and around with ease

Berlin is an excellent place for a weekend hop-over or short stay. For a start, many low-cost carriers serve the city. From the UK, I flew in to Tegel for £40 (FlyBe), and am flying out of Schönefeld for £30 (EasyJet). From the US, although obviously more expensive, there are still budget options such as Wow Air.

What’s more, connections from the airports to the city are easy and excellent. The Berlin public transport system (BVG) is comprehensive, fast and good value. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for all zones A, B, and C – including the airports – is currently just €7.70. And that covers local trains, trams and buses. (For most of your full-day activities, a ticket for zones A and B will suffice, making it even cheaper.)

All this makes Berlin the perfect candidate for zipping into and around if you have a limited budget and a short time.

A Berlin for everybody

The huge selling point of Berlin is its diversity of attractions. There are museums, exhibits and sights that will appeal variously to all kinds of interests. And entry fees are, on the whole, very reasonable! Pretty impressive for a major city (and welcome to a Brit suffering from a weak pound!)

Traditional museum buff with a love of antiquity? The Pergamon Museum is probably top of your list. Like showcase architecture and spectacular views? Then head to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).

As for me, I’m a political history nerd. Hungry to learn everything I could about the old East German regime, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period the city has come to terms with through openness; the Stasi Museum (€6.00) and DDR Museum (€9.50) are intriguing, often disturbing, but ultimately extremely enlightening places to spend time. For the linguist, they offer tons of reading material in the form of short summaries of key events with each exhibit. These are in German and English, just in case you need some translation support!

Deciphering East German soldier speak at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Deciphering East German soldier speak in an exhibit at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

History – and language – on every corner

The city is also full of symbolic, charged landmarks of political history, like Checkpoint Charlie and the restored Reichstag. To dig into the significance of each, I used the German language version of Wikipedia to do my planning beforehand. Additionally, public buildings have dedicated websites, like the Reichstag website – essential for booking the highly recommended (and free!) lift to the roof to view the cupola. The Reichstag reception also has piles of books and leaflets in German, all free to take away with you after your visit.

YouTube is a great pre-trip resource, with some excellent historical clips for fact-digging in the target language. I walked through the Brandenburger Tor, from East to West, after refreshing my own memory with German documentary footage of citizens streaming to freedom one November night in 1989. That made for a pretty special way to rei-imagine Berlin’s history.

The day-to-day

Besides the grand cultural experiences, there was plenty of chance to practise my more prosaic German. Berliners come across as open and friendly people, and it was easy to turn everyday conversations into a little bit more.

Being used to waves of tourists with little or no German, shop and restaurant staff seem more than happy to have a little chat if you want to go beyond “one piece of Streusel, please!”. Being curious and asking questions helps – “wie heißt dieser Kuchen?” (“what’s this cake called?”) was a simple but effective conversation starter in the bakery! Just the slightest hint of an accent will turn the simplest of questions into a chat about why you speak German, too.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

In short, I don’t know why I left it so long. Berlin, where have you been all my life? Multiple trips back are a foregone conclusion; the charm of the city and the inexhaustible pot of things to do ensure that. As an affordable mini-trip for Germanists in maintenance mode, I can’t recommend it enough.

Avoiding English can be hard in a very anglocentric world

The English trap: avoiding your native language abroad

It’s too easy to be lazy in an anglocentric world. It happens to the best language learners in the world: you come out with your best Deutsch / français / español on your trip, only to get the reply in English. GRR! – for a moment – before we give in to the easy option.

I’ve found that the trick to beating this is a bit of Bond-style subterfuge. This is one area of life where dishonesty can be the best policy, as you try to obliterate all traces of your original linguistic identity. Specifically, you need to eliminate any native-English intonation from your speech.

Easier said than done, admittedly. There are some quite large targets to hit, though, and here are some of the easiest to de-anglifying yourself on your language trip!

Down with diphthongs

In most varieties of English, vowel sounds clump together and are rarely pure. Just think of the word ‘too’. That ‘oo’ isn’t a straightforward, single sound, but for speakers of most varieties of English, contains at least two stages – the ‘oo’ followed by a glide down to what is almost a ‘w’ sound at the end. These kinds of multisound syllables are called diphthongs, and are very characteristic of English.

By contrast, languages like Spanish and Italian have much purer vowel sounds. Spanish  (you), for example, sounds much more clipped and singular than the homophone too.

So, when trying to disguise your English accent, be aware of your natural tendency to diphthongise. Keep your pronunciation clipped and terse, if that helps.

Have a back story

Sometimes, out-and-out fibbing is the only way. Be ready with a “sorry, I don’t speak English” to force the speaker to use the target language. Have a back story, if that helps – why don’t you speak English? Where are you actually from, if not from the UK / USA / Australia etc.? (Make sure it’s unlikely the speaker won’t also know the language of that country, else it could get pretty embarrassing.)

It’s an untruth, but see it as a little white lie that  might grab you some more language practice opportunity. And it might also prompt the speaker to switch back to a more careful, clear form of the target language to use with you (you poor non-English-speaker!).

English penalties

Can’t beat the temptation to switch? Then turn target language speaking into a game. Keep a tally of the times you give in and lapse into English each day. Go a step further and devise a list of penalties for hitting X/Y/Z digressions. Nothing too self-punishing, please – maybe buying dinner for your travel buddies or relinquishing control of the travel itinerary for a day. Keep it positive!

If all else fails – be honest

We’re not all cut out (or bothered) to be masters of disguise. You can always take the heart-on-your-sleeve option: simply explain why you don’t want to use English. You can prepare this in advance of your trip – just a few phrases will suffice, such as:

  • I’m learning X
  • I need to practise my X
  • Can we speak X?

Most of the time, you’ll also elicit some sympathy and a smile or two from the speaker, too. And who knows? You might even make friends.

You’ve paid a lot of hard-earnt cash for your chance to go abroad and speak. Protect that investment, by hook or by crook!

 

Travel with the bare essentials

Travel and the ‘Stuff Monster’ : Lessons from the road

Travel has always gone hand-in-hand with a love of languages for me. As a kid, I realised how languages were a key to opening up huge swathes of a fascinating world, a world I wanted to explore. And, sure enough, I grew up into something of a travel addict and extreme commuter.

But travel isn’t just about wonderful life experiences, but also a huge learning opportunity. The lessons at hand touch on a couple of fundamental aspects of humanity: freedom and footprint. Here, I look at some of my favourite lessons learnt from travel.

The less, the merrier

Modern, Western lives are stuff-heavy. Our lives are full of things. And we’re often not content with just one of something – we like choice. Multiple pairs of shoes, the same shirt in three different colours, a rack of coats to suit every mood. It sounds great, until you realise how closely a surfeit of stuff – clutter – and depression are interlinked.

As soon as you start to travel, though, it becomes apparent how unburdening it is to break that link. I’ve long abandoned taking a suitcase on a journey – that just encourages you to cram a load of unnecessary choices – and weight – that you won’t end up using anyway. Lugging your life about like that only creates stress.

Instead, it’s become a bit of a game to see how lightly I can pack. I challenge myself to take ever-smaller backpacks with me on trips. I work out the minimum I can get away with. The challenge is not only fun, but it leaves you incredibly streamlined – how ace is it to simply jump off the plane / train / coach with your lightweight bag and nothing to slow you down?

Neat ‘n’ tidy

Stuff eats space. If we feed the stuff monster, it hogs more and more of life’s real estate. And it’s true what they say: a messy place more often than not leads to a messy mind.

It’s the same with travel, especially if you’re moving between multiple destinations. With too much stuff, there’s a lot to think about when you pack up to move on. Did I pack this? Have I picked up everything from the room?  Keeping your stuff to a compact minimum helps enormously with stuff-stress. Keep yourself tidy and be ready to move on at the drop of a hat!

Waste not, want not

The world doesn’t want your stuff, either, or at least the detritus from it. So use up what you have before throwing it away. And if possible, stick to refillable containers.  These squidgies from GoToob are brilliant for minimising packaging waste, and saving money on those rather poor value mini-sized toiletries! Frugality can save the world and spare your pocket.

Travel, Respect and learn

Wherever we go, we’re guests. And the very least you can do to be a thankful guest is to learn a few words of the language. Whether you’re a linguist or not, some local vocab invariably wins smiles and opens doors if you’re in a foreign country.

There’s no excuse not to learn the absolute bare minimum, which would be:

  • Hello
  • Thank you
  • Goodbye

Head to Google Translate and find them out before you go!

Put your phone away

Technology is wonderful. But like stuff, it’s also a monster, and needs taming. Dogged by notifications, I find that Airplane Mode can be my very best travel buddy. Disconnecting from the ‘net can relieve some of the ‘always on’ stress, and get you focussed on what’s around you in the physical world. But at the same time, it’s the perfect strategy for making your battery last longer between fizzle-outs.

Granted, phones are often our cameras these days. But even then, do you need scores of photos from each location? After finding how infrequently I look at them afterwards, I set myself a max limit of just a couple of photos per sight / special location when I travel. It means you’re messing less often with your phone, taking in more of the experience with your own eyes and brain, and thinking a bit more carefully about the very best shot to get when you do reach for the camera. Hopefully, the shots that come out of that will be really special.

At the crux of all these lessons is materialism and freedom. Humans love stuff, physical or digital. But travel teaches you that masses and masses of it bog you down. Downsize, minimalise and economise – and travel through life that bit more aerodynamically!

Aeroplane

Language travels on a shoestring

Despite brill online face-to-face services like iTalki for practising and learning languages with native speakers, you can’t beat time spent in the country as the best way to immerse yourself in your chosen language. Seems like an expensive way to fluency, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be, with a range of web tools for sourcing super-cheap travel to your target language country.

Top of the list, and indispensable to the travelling linguist, is Google Flights Explore. It’s not particularly well signposted online – in fact, it’s practically clandestine, and you have to be told by someone else ‘in the know’ before you can find it! Why the experimental extension to Google’s flight search is not promoted more is a mystery, but it’s second-to-none at sourcing cheap flight offers with very general search terms (and I mean very – you can pop in ‘Scandinavia’ or ‘Eastern Europe’, and it will check the lot!).

For instance, say you’re learning Polish. Enter your preferred airport of origin, then Poland as the destination. You can adjust the length of the trip if you like, but the default 3-5 days is a good short break duration if you’re looking for a cheap getaway to practise your language skills. You don’t even need to add a date, as when you select your start and end points, you’ll be presented with a list of destinations along with time charts of the cheapest flights to each. It will even order them, with the cheapest, on average, at the top.

The example below shows that I can get to Warsaw from Edinburgh for as little as around £20 return (USD$25, although prices in your local currency appear when you click through to one of the flights on the time chart).

Google Flights Explore example

Google Flights Explore

Switching to a traditionally more expensive flight destination, such as Norway, still yields great results; a quick search today threw out some £30 returns on London-Oslo routes. It’s just as handy for longer-haul flights, too; flying from New York, Norwegian students can get to the country for under USD$300 return in a sample search made at the time of writing.

But how to minimise costs when you get there? Accommodation will be perhaps the biggest expense on the tick-list. It’s no big secret that, for value, you can’t really beat private rental services like AirBnB. Combining with the sample Polish flight search above, you could add a private room in a shared house for just £11 a night at the time of writing. That amounts to less than £100 for a 5-night stay, flights and accommodation included.

But there are more benefits to using these services like this than low rates. For a linguist / cultural explorer, a private rental property will likely:

  • come with a direct contact, and so more opportunity to meet a local and practise a bit of language as soon as you’re off the plane
  • give you a more authentic experience of what it’s like to live in the target language country, especially as it’s more likely to be self-catering (think of all that shopping vocab you can practise!)
  • give you day-to-day, lived experience of the language if you’re in a shared property / room in someone’s home

Compare that to the often sterile, internationalised hotel reception experience, and private accommodation offers big boons for the language traveller!

There are ways to minimise living costs while you’re there, too. They may not be glamorous – buying food supplies at supermarkets rather than going out to eat, grabbing a cheap pølser i brød (hotdog) at an Oslo kiosk for tea – but again, they bring you into direct contact with the target language, rather than sanitising your experience through safe, familiar settings like restaurants.

It might seem an extreme measure – and, intuitively, an outrageously unaffordable one – to ‘pop abroad’ when you need some target language practice. But it needn’t be bank-breaking, if you know where to look. Commit to a cheap cultural scouting trip once every month, or at least couple of months, setting yourself a tiny budget and seeing what you can do with it. Your inner linguist will thank you!