There's no better time to clean up your Anki! (Image from

Anki Spring Cleaning : Brush up your decks!

It’s almost Spring! So doesn’t it feel like time for a refresh? A change is as good as a rest, and if that doesn’t go for our Anki decks too, I don’t know what does.

The thing with well-used tools is that, over time, the lose their sheen. Imperfections creep in, annoying niggles that we ignore for the time being. A note type out of place. An image not showing now and again. It may not interrupt our learning terribly, but after a while they can start to grate.

That’s why it’s a great idea to lay aside some time every few months to clean up your Anki decks.  If you are also a stickler for order, you will understand this declutter itch!

So what is the order of ceremonies for our Anki freshen-up blast? Our tidying spree here will focus on three areas:

  1. Bringing card images into the Anki file rather than external links
  2. Cleaning up unwanted media (without deleting your card images)
  3. Identifying and eliminating rogue note types

Before we start, remember to exercise caution when tinkering around in Anki’s underbelly. Preferably, make a full backup via the Export feature before you start. Better safe than sorry!

1. All-inclusive media

If you know a bit of HTML, it’s easy to spruce up your cards with colour and images. When I customise Anki cards, I often use flags, for instance. For the visual polyglot learner in you, flags can really help keep multiple languages separate in memory.

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

A Norwegian card in Anki

Now, for speed and ease, I often just search for a flag image online and use the URL directly in the card, like this:

<img src="" width="50" height="40" style="margin-bottom: 20px; border: 2px solid black" />

The problem here is not only that the code looks bloated and long-winded. More seriously, when using the decks without internet, the flags are simply absent, since they are downloaded every time.

Bring them home

The trick is to download and place your images inside Anki so they ‘live’ inside your data. Anki has a media folder just for this. Usually, the program places items there automatically when you add sound or images to a card, for example. But you can place them there yourself, too, and refer to them in your card code.

To open the media folder, open your Anki Preferences. Then, select the Backups tab. You should see a link titled Open backup folder – click it.

Anki Preferences

Anki Preferences

Now, the folder it opens isn’t the one we want. We need to go up one directory level, then into the folder called This is where your Anki account keeps all of its MP3, PNG and similar files. With this folder open, it’s a good idea to close the Anki program in the background while we work.

Download and add the flag images and otherwise to this folder. You might want to resize them first. And, if you have lots of them, use a file naming system that keeps things tidy. For example, I prefix flag image files with fl_.

Close the folder once you are done, then reopen Anki. Head to the browser, select a card for customising, and you are set to use simply the file name on its own to link the image:

<img src="flag_it.png" width="50" height="40" style="margin-bottom: 20px; border: 2px solid black" />

Isn’t that so much better?

One note: you can nest files in subfolders and refer to them in your code, like flags/flag_it.png. However, while the desktop app recognises these paths, it seems that the iPhone app doesn’t. As with all these things, it’s worth playing around to see what you can and can’t do (while taking copious backups along the way, of course).

2. Media hangover

While we hang around in Anki’s media emporium, we may as well take the opportunity to keep on cleaning!

For a long time, I wondered why my Anki syncs were so large. It turned out that the media from old, since removed, shared decks were still hanging around. Inexplicably, deleting the deck hadn’t deleted the associated media. Carefully checking and deleting that wodge of unwanted files took multiple megabytes off my sync.

Of course, Anki has a tool for this already, in Tools > Check Media. In theory, it lists unused / unliked media for deletion. But sometimes a hands-on approach is just a bit more reliable. For one thing, your card images, like the flags above, will be listed as unused. They are not attached to cards, but rather your card templates, meaning they fall through Anki’s net. We don’t want the program to delete those!

A nice tidy Anki media folder

A nice and tidy Anki media folder

3. Rogue note types, begone!

Similarly, as with the media clutter, I’d accumulated some note types that meant nothing to me over prolonged use. Some of them seemed to be versions of standard cards but with odd suffixes, like Basic and Reversed Card-accfe. This seems to happen when cards are imported from shared decks, and there is some conflict with existing card types.

Fortunately, it is an easy problem to fix. Head to Tools > Manage Note Types on the home screen of the desktop app. Then, hit Add to create a new note type based on the same template as the strangely named notes.

Adding a new note type in Anki

Adding a new note type in Anki

After the new note type is ready, you can head to the Browse section of Anki. In the left-hand list, you should find an entry for the rogue note type. Click it to view cards assigned to that type, and highlight the notes you want to correct. Then go to Edit > Change Note Type, and change the selected cards to the new, corrected note type you set up above.

After you have done this to all the cards assigned to the strangely-named rogue types, you can go back to Tools > Manage Note Types on the main screen and delete them. Check that it reads 0 notes next to the type before you do – if not, you still need to change the type of some cards unless you no longer want to keep them.

Changing the note type in Anki

Changing the note type in Anki

As you get used to the internal machinery of the Anki app, you can do a regular sweep to keep on top of these foibles. It’s quite satisfying – a little akin to doing regular weeding to keep your garden in order – and will increase that sense of ownership you have over your vocabulary.

So roll up your sleeves, make plentiful backups, and get to Spring cleaning! Your Anki decks will positively shine for it.

Elephants (not the Evernote elephant)

Evernote : Language Hero Sidekick

Think language learning apps, and all the specialist ones tend to come to mind first: Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise and so on. But there are a couple of general tools I use all the time in my language learning. In particular, Evernote has become an utterly indispensable part of that suite.

So why is this unsung hero is a mainstay of my learning routine?


If you spend a lot of time writing in the target language, whether creating vocabulary lists or translation homeworks, organisation is key. And with the ability to create multiple notebooks and notebook stacks as standard, Evernote is hard to beat in terms of simplicity and ease.

In my Languages stack, for example, I have a separate notebook for each language I study. And that stack keeps my study notes separate from the myriad other things I use Evernote for. That could be anything from work week planning to travel itineraries. It’s out-of-the-box ready for your sprawling, cross-curricular life.

Evernote Tags

However, Notebooks and notebook stacks are only Evernote’s topmost level of organisation. And it’s true, plenty of note-taking apps work this way.

But what adds granularity to that is the powerful tag functionality. You can add custom tags to any note, adding descriptive – and searchable – terms to help sort and find work later on. The thing is, most people end up with hundreds of documents. This is a given if you study more than one language. Tags add an element of power search that is invaluable.

The whole process of tagging can fine-tune your language study to the nth degree. Amongst other things, I tag my language learning notes with descriptors like grammarhomework, writing practice, vocabulary, lesson notes and so on. As such, notes never disappear into the ether. I can retrieve every note for review with a simple tag search, respecting the time spent creating them.

More than text

Throughout self-taught language courses as well as one-to-one lessons, I’ve amassed a ton of PDF worksheets, sound files and other multimedia educational items. The beauty of Evernote is that these can be attached to notes and filed away with them, always findable. This is so much better than my former, clumsy folder system on the computer.

This extends to webpages too, like news articles or blog posts in the target language. If you’ve worked on a news article as part of a language homework, you can keep the original article along with your notes and vocab lists. You’ll never come across old notes and wonder what text they are referring to again!

Language scrapbooking

Attachments can be more fun than simply worksheets and listening comprehension files, too. I’m a big fan of language scrapbooking – keeping a visual log of your linguistic travels through ephemera like holiday snaps, menus, tickets and other items you pick up on your journeys. For one thing, it makes your connection to the target language culture much more personal – and that can only help with motivation and memory.

However, I’m also very anti-clutter. Keeping hold of countless tram tickets, leaflets and snaps of signposts in foreign languages would just be anathema to me. So, I let Evernote lend a hand! You can scan items straight into a note via the app, or embed multiple pictures into a single document from file. They’re tagged, commented and scrapbooked without any of the mess left hanging around. Excellent for OCD-minded linguists like me.

Shared notes

Language learning is often best as a social activity. Whether it’s a study buddy, fellow classmate or teacher,  sharing what you do with someone else makes your learning much more dynamic.

In Evernote, this is a piece of cake. Any note can be shared with a button click. This makes light work of distributing vocab lists, or sending your homework to your teacher, for example.

What’s more, you control the permissions granted to the shared party. Keep your vocabulary master lists or curriculum plans as ‘Can view’ only in order to retain complete control over them. Your students / buddies will always see your most up-to-date version when shared. On the other hand, give your teacher ‘Can edit’ privileges in order to mark, correct and annotate your writing homeworks. Fantastically simple!

Sharing language learning notes in Evernote

Sharing language learning notes in Evernote

Incidentally, the Evernote text editor is a rich text editor with ample formatting features for your foreign language writing. The desktop program offers just enough tools without the clutter of a fully-fledged Word Processor.

Plan with tick boxes

Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make the biggest difference. For me, it’s tick boxes in Evernote. As a list-making obsessive – I plan my language goals  using a 12-week year approach with concrete objectives – I can get my list fix within Evernote itself.

Again, I can’t underestimate the value of keeping all of these items – planning as well as the actual learning material and my notes on it – together in one service.

Evernote tick list

Evernote tick list


Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Evernote works cross-platform. This allows for a very flexible study workflow. For example, I like to work actively on my notes in the desktop program. I’ll use the mobile app to review my notes on the go, as well as scanning in visual items as attachments, or recording audio notes. Occasionally, it’s handy to flip this, and use the mobile app directly to do my language homework on the move.

Having all your rich, indexed notes in a phone can be incredibly handy for the travelling linguist. It’s the perfect place to store speaking crib sheets to support your speaking when in the target language country, for example. Likewise, in a Skype lesson, having a list of useful phrases available in the palm of your hand can be a lifesaver.

Two devices with a free account

With the free account, you can install Evernote on two devices. That’s been enough for me, for the most part, with the app on my laptop and on my phone. However, you can upgrade to a premium account for unlimited installs (useful if you often switch between a phone and tablet when on the move). A premium account will also give you a lot more space for data-heavy attachments.

Evernote is star software with a multitude of real-world applications. It’s part and parcel of how I learn languages now, doing a superb job of holding masses of material together for me.

Are you also a fan of the green elephant? How has it helped your learning routine? Let us know in the comments below!

Pot pourri

Pot pourri : my week in languages

Pot-pourri is a lovely French term, usually applied to a mixture of herbs and spices, or fragranced wood chips. I’ve appropriately appropriated the French for this week’s blog post, which is a bit of a mixed bag. The past seven days have thrown a few interesting things my language-learning way, so here is my digest of the nuggets most worth sharing.

Chocolate-powered language learning

I’ve been revelling in the joys of globalism this week. Namely, this has involved using my Polish language project as an excuse to stock up on edible goodies in the Polish section of Tesco. Covered in target language (slogans and ingredient lists are particularly useful vocabulary mines), and providing a taste of Polish popular culture, what more could a chocoholic linguist ask for?

It might seem utterly normal to kids these days to find products from overseas markets on the shelves these days. But it wasn’t so long ago that there was nothing like this in your local supermarket. As a lad, I would have found this stuff completely fascinating – a fascination that obviously remains with me, as I crammed chocs into my basket earlier this week.

It’s not just about new words. Filling your life with tokens from your target language culture is the perfect way to truly live your language. I recall friends of mine who have brought Japan into every corner of their home. Foreign language grocery products help to create a bit of a special buzz and vibe around your polyglot project.

If you’re not lucky enough to find a whole aisle in the supermarket for your target language, all is not lost. A look around the local discounter store reveals a huge array of products covered in all kinds of languages. A pack of biscuits, for example, had the ingredients listed on the packet in 8 different languages. Granted, they can often be off-the-beaten-track languages rather than mainstream French and Spanish, but these shops are worth a mooch!

For the record: Advocat bars are absolutely delicious.

OverDrive for public library ebooks

The next addition to my linguistic pot pourri has reminded me of the wonderful, often untapped service that our public libraries are. Whilst re-registering for my local library, I’ve also rediscovered the incredibly handy OverDrive app for online library access. Using your library details (card number and passcode / pin), you can set the app up for e-borrowing. Books will depend on the library, but there are quite a few of interest to linguists on there.

I enjoy wider cultural background reading around my target language too, and there are some great titles on there for that – some very recent. I found Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, for example, which is a very accessible way in to a lot of the Icelandic saga material. Bagging the e-book from the library saved me a few pounds (which I’ll probably spend buying more Polish Advocat bars).

Free target language listening material from Teach Yourself

This one surprised me, I must admit. But then, I grew up as a language lover in the 1990s, when Teach Yourself books were X pounds on their own, and almost double that with the accompanying CDs.

The amazing thing is that Teach Yourself now offer nearly all of the listening material for their language books online – for free – at

Now, this may not be new to anyone else. Apologies if I’m late to the party. You may be eye-rolling as you read this, thinking “get with the picture, Ritchie!”. But now I have found it, I’ll be a regular visitor, at least for the next few weeks.

It’s not a perfect resource, of course, as the book material is not included. But even without the written page, the recordings offer some great, graded listening practice on their own. It might just be that little extra you need to improve your audio comprehension.

As seems the case so often, many of these language learning boosts were lying right under my nose. I hope you found them useful too! And, as a final favour, please share your recommendations of overseas goodies in the comments – maybe you’ll help me find something even tastier than a Polish Advocat!

Blinkist offers condensed summaries of hundreds of books.

Blinkist : one-stop knowledge shop with some language-learning gems

If you use any social media platform, you can’t have missed them lately; those bold and brash ads, featuring ever-so-slightly smug millennials stating “I read four books a day” and similar. Yes, Blinkist has been on a marketing offensive in recent weeks.

I must admit that a bit of academic snobbery held me back for a bit. The smiling professionals in the ads haven’t really read the books, of course, but read and/or listened to synopses, or ‘blinks’ in the terminology of the service.

You see, Blinkist is, in essence, a library of hundreds and hundreds of Cliff Notes on best-selling non-fiction books. Part of me screams “but that’s cheating!” at the cheek of it. But there’s still something enticing about getting a regular, easy-to-digest snapshot of the latest knowledge and trends, so I gave it a go.

Blinkist for linguists

First off, I wasn’t joining with my linguist head on, but rather as a wannabe polymath. I have a strong interest in society topics – I did a social sciences degree in my free time a couple of years back with the excellent Open University – and I was looking forward to trawling through Blinkist’s catalogue of politics, pop psych and sociology first and foremost.

But surprise – there are actually quite a few titles of interest to linguists there. They go beyond general linguistics topics, too, including hands-on titles like Benny Lewis’ “Fluent In Three Months” and Gabriel Wyner’s “Fluent Forever”, both pretty much essentials in the polyglot community.

If you like learning about language as well as how to learn them, particularly how language develops and changes, Blinkist doesn’t disappoint. For instance, I love Guy Deutscher’s writing on language. I was more than chuffed to note that the platform includes his Through The Language Glass. It’s great to get a second shot at that in summarised, audiobook format.

Blinkist: enhances, rather than replaces reading

So, do I feel like I’ve ‘read’ the books I’ve listened to so far? Well, not really. I think a service like this inevitably skips the detail and nuance that make book-reading such a joy. But I do feel like I have a good overview of the main points. And it’s a nice way to ‘dip in’ to a book you might buy the full version of later on.

Also, there are a few texts on there that I’ve already read. For example, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct was a set text on my language degree syllabus at Oxford back in 1995. The Blinkist summary is a brilliant way to revisit it, lighting up all those pathways and connections that I formed long ago on my first reading of it.

And that’s the strength of the platform. As a way in, or a way back, it’s a wonderful resource to work with non-fiction texts. And, if you like podcasts as much as I do, the similarity of the format will fit right into your routine. It’s also a very likeable format. The titles are read in a fairly neutral American accent, with a mix of male and female narrators. It feels like the team have taken care to make them as pleasant to listen to as they are quick and easy.

While it will never replace reading full books, Blinkist is one more tool in the arsenal of sites and services to keep you well-informed. And as a linguist, there’s lots to get your teeth into. With a free seven-day trial, it’s well worth a nose!

Metalanguage helps you to talk about the cogs and wheels of language

Metalanguage : learning to talk *about* your target language

One of the biggest challenges for language students is to maintain a 100% target-language environment during lessons. Holding everyday conversations is one thing. But when it comes to discussing the language itself, we often lack the tools. We need metalanguage.

Metalanguage refers to the set of terms for describing and analysing language. You probably learnt such terms at school in your native language lessons: verb, noun, pronoun and so on. But typically, these aren’t presented in the target language when you are learning from foreign language course material. This makes chatting about your learning incredibly difficult.

Keep the target language flowing

I recently noticed what a positive effect metalanguage can have in my Polish lessons. With my teacher, we’ve been covering noun cases lately – always a tricky topic for English-speaking students of the language. My attempt to keep speaking Polish was constantly thwarted by having to switch to English: “ohhhh, that’s genitive plural“, “does that take the instrumental?” and so on. It was getting tedious.

Quick fix: I learnt the names of the Polish cases in Polish. For fans of tongue-twisters, they are: mianownik, biernik, dopełniacz, celownik, narzędnik, miejscownik and wołacz (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, locative and vocative). Some quite challenging vocabulary in one go, there!

Metalanguage: unlocking further vocabulary

Of course, language lesson is the environment where knowing these will help prevent breakdowns in the 100% target language flow. However, you might think that metalanguage is of limited use beyond teacher talk.

However, learning words like these helps you to do more than just talk about language. They can be keys to new and extra vocabulary in themselves. Through spotting links between the names of the cases and other Polish words, for example, they have also consolidated my own expanding neural network of Polish words.

How does this work? Well, let’s take the word for dative in Polish, celownik. This derives from the word cel (goal, aim), and in turn, relates to celowo (deliberately, on purpose). Quite natural, then, that the noun case for direction, or doing something to someone/something proceeds from this family of words. Instantly, these terms are no longer in isolation for me, but in a group. Crucially, grouping of related terms strengthens recall, something borne out by memory research.

Several (overwhelmingly European) languages, rather annoyingly, stick to Latin terminology for analytical grammatical terms. German, for example, uses Verb and Präsens (Present Tense), amongst others. But often, there are alternative ways to describe language phenomenon, which are not simply borrowings. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll find that you can also use Zeitwort (verb – literally ‘time word’) and Gegenwart (present – in the grammatical and literal sense of ‘being present’) instead. It pays to persevere with your dictionary.

See your own language differently

Finally, learning these terms, and what they refer to, not only helps you become a better speaker of your target language; you also come to know your first language on much closer terms.

As a case in point, I grew up in the classrooms of the 1980s, where the grammar of my own language barely featured in English lessons. It was only after switching on to foreign languages that I began to understand how my own worked. Learning terms like passive voicevalency and indirect object opened up a whole new world. My English improved along with my practical language skills. Getting to grips with metalanguage is a vital step on the way to earning the label ‘linguist’.

It’s certainly worth researching metalanguage in the languages you study. Whether to keep your native language lapses to a minimum, or unlock and consolidate further vocabulary, talking about your language in your language is an effort that pays off.

Coaching and languages: the travelling partner you need?

Language learners are used to working with others. These tend to be language specialists: teachers, conversation exchange partners or fellow students. But support in learning languages does not have to be in the target language. Not convinced? Well recently, I’ve been lucky enough to work with a coach on achieving my self-set language goals. Through coaching, I’ve been able to focus on improving how I learn, rather than just cramming content. And I’m completely sold on the usefulness of it to your learning toolkit.

It helps to know that I’m in good company. Multilingual mogul Benny Lewis has sung the praises of coaching repeatedly. In particular, he recommends the free app, and is an active member of the platform’s forum and goal-sharing community. I’ve used the app myself, and it is wonderfully simple. Even if you only take advantage of the daily goal reminders, it can be an incredibly powerful motivator.

You can take this a step further, though, and seek out a real-life, human coach to work with. This can be face-to-face, or, more likely these days, online via Skype or similar. For the past month, I’ve been scheduling weekly slots with a coach online. The experience has been nothing but positive, and I’m excited to share how the process can unstick even the stickiest, most disorganised linguist!

Search for the hero inside yourself

Coaching builds on the principle that, in many cases, the answers are already inside ourselves. They just need coaxing out. Avril, my coach, puts this succinctly: she is my tour guide. She shows me around and points things out that I might miss. But the landscape is one of my own making.

How can we not know ourselves, and how can a coach help bridge the gap? The problem is that we are all embedded in busy, often chaotic lives of overlapping priorities.

Coaching in the eyes of a coach

Maybe it’s best to let a coaching expert do the talking here. Cameron Murdoch, experienced coach and mentor at Coaching Studio, puts it like this:

Coaching is often about being challenged by the coach by them using powerful questions. Quite often you have the answer yourself, but it needs another person to draw it out.

The coach also acts as an accountability partner type figure so you set targets but they make sure you achieve them. They help you also if you hit a brick wall and help you tackle issues that develop that could stop you. They also help celebrate achievement as well as walk through problems.

It’s a way of opening up the mind to push you out of your comfort zone and into the learning zone – but making sure you don’t step into the panic zone. They push you just enough to learn, but not to panic.

Quite simply, a coaching partner can push you where you won’t push yourself, and help you see things when you are too close to the issues to see them yourself.

Talking with Avril recently, we likened this to a pile of tangled wool of difference colours. A coach can help you to pick out strands of the same colour, and place them neatly on their own to analyse and optimise. Instantly, you then see what needs doing. In this way, a coach lifts your goal-oriented activity out of the chaos and makes it visible; and that makes it so much more manageable.

Plan of action

For me, a key ‘obvious’ was simply organising my time better.

I instinctively knew that one key to making my learning more systematic would be to use calendar blocking. In fact, it was so ‘obvious’, that I’d even written an article about it. But, somehow, your own advice can be the hardest to put into practice.

Instead of learning bits and pieces here and there, I agreed with my coach to allocate half- or full-hour slots of time where I could sit down and focus entirely on a chapter of a course book, or active reading of a news article.

What helps keep you on the straight and narrow is a sense of accountability. These are not empty promises I’ve made myself. Rather, every week, I have to report how I’m getting on to someone who is following me along the road. The effect is surprisingly motivating!

Finding a coaching partner

Apps like include an option to contract with a human coach through the app. You can do a simple Google search for coaches too, although be aware that the kind of coaching I’m talking about here is not life coaching, and it seems that Google tends to favour those results above other goal-oriented coaching services.

On a personal level, I can recommend checking out Cameron Murdoch as a coach or source of pointers and other coach recommendations. He’s quite an inspirational guy for many reasons; you’ll see some of these on his LinkedIn profile.

Be a guinea pig

However, you might well know somebody working towards a coaching qualification. If you’re lucky enough to be offered a set of sessions as their guinea pig, that’s a superb opportunity.

Even if that’s not an option, I believe that the standard hourly rate (anything from £75 upwards depending on the coach’s experience) is well worth it if it unlocks a higher tier of learning.

Typically, you will also specify a finite block of coaching time – say, ten sessions – so, unlike fitness training, for example, there is an end point in sight. This helps in budgeting, especially if you’re not keen on the idea of another outgoing bill / subscription ad infinitum. Of course, you might choose to carry on a coaching relationship if you think you need the helping hand!

I’m still travelling my coaching journey, and have a number of sessions to go. But already, I can see its huge value as a language learner. Whether through an app service, or with a real-life human being, give coaching a try: it might just set you right back on track with your languages.

Surround yourself with symbols of your target language culture, like the cherry blossom of Japan

Language idols: inspiration amongst friends

Sometimes there are people who happen upon a language learning system that just works. Sometimes it’s planned, sometimes it’s accidental. But those people are great sources of inspiration and ideas for people like us.

As an example, I’ve always been particularly awed and encouraged by the linguistic adventures of two friends – let’s call them Aaron and Bob, to spare their blushes. And in this post, I’ll introduce you to them, and hopefully pass on some of that inspiration. I promise, their story has a lot to motivate other language lovers!

The full whammy

Aaron and Bob embody possibly the noblest motivation for language learning: cultural fascination. They’ve been learning Japanese together for some years now, driven by a mutual love of all things Nippon. And they are shining examples of the wonderful technique of ‘going the full whammy’ with language learning.

The crux is that they don’t simply learn words and phrases. They positively soak their lives in all things Japanese. Art, cuisine, music – when you visit their home, it’s in every corner. Once a month, for example, they receive a subscription box of Japanese sweet treats from Tokyo Treat. (It turns out there are loads of these – Japan Crate and DokiDokiBoxie, for example.) There are always some lying around, and they’re particularly generous with guests!

This love of Nippon had the kind of humble beginning a lot of us are familiar with: musing over dream holidays. As Bob explains:

The very start of it was not long after we first moved in together (about 10 years ago!), we were daydreaming about places we’d like to go on holiday one day, and we both agreed that Japan was a dream destination. But we thought we wouldn’t be able to get much out of it without knowing some of the language. Several years later, we had better jobs, so bigger holidays became a possibility. We were looking for something new to learn together and thought Japanese would be a good option because we were both complete beginners and had friends who had studied it at uni. Aaron found beginners’ classes and we signed up together in early 2011.

The passion and inspiration seems to have snowballed since then, turning into a huge, loveable oni (Japanese monster / ogre) that has somehow captured everyone who surrounds the lads! 👹

Bringing friends along for the ride

Perhaps one of Aaron and Bob’s biggest triumphs is in socialising their learning. Through their generosity of spirit, they have managed to bring all of their friends along for the ride in a celebration of Japan.

Although we may not be learning Japanese with them, our hosts regularly bathe us in their cultural finds, be they unusual sweeties, or home-cooked, Tokyo-inspired treats. They make us laugh with stories of the Japanese monster scene, and teach us how those strange emoticons are really meant to be used. They share favourite pieces of art on social media, and introduce us to their cache of Japanese furries at home. Every step of their language learning journey really is a celebration. 🎉

For them, this creates a constant positive feedback loop around the language learning experience. It’s fun to share for both the lads and us friends; they create a cloud of good vibes around Japanese, which becomes a huge motivator for continuing the journey.

Two heads are better than one

I think what helps the pair, too, is the sense of joint enterprise. Learning together throws up myriad opportunities for fun, as well as solidarity in the more staid, but still essential components, like mutual testing and exam practice. It’s wonderful if you have a partner ready to learn with you like this, but if not, you can still source a language buddy online. For example, sites like iTalki can help you locate fellow-minded learners across the globe if there’s nobody nearby who shares the passion.

Going to the target language country together offers a great opportunity to egg each other on, too. They’ve recently returned from a trip to Japan full of stories. I’m particularly impressed at how they’ve made the most of curious, talkative eldery Japanese citizens in bars – cultural exchange, barroom style! Moreover, when abroad, we often seem different and conspicuous – so why not make a point of it, and chat about those differences with locals? They have that skill down to a tee.

Language is everywhere

There are some caveats, of course. You could say that Aaron and Bob chose their language very well in terms of immersion and availability. Japanese culture seems to enjoy a good deal of cool factor in the West, and is quite accessible for lovers of the alternative. Target-language-ising their lives might have been a bit harder if they’d been learning, say, Albanian.

But nonetheless, with a bit of research, you can fill your playlists with music from anywhere, these days. Spotify and YouTube include representatives from the whole world over. Put some music together, look up some recipes, and hold a celebration night for your target language culture. Or simply insert a few of these things into your usual gatherings. Make culture your inspiration.

Aaron and Bob’s approach is to take one language and culture, and do it in style. This might get tricky if you’re learning multiple languages, but there is a bit of that approach that any learner can adopt, polyglossic or otherwise. In short, we could all benefit from being a bit more like Aaron and Bob!

Polish words in a dictionary

2000 words and still not fluent? My Polish Anki experiment 🇵🇱📱

Would you be impressed if I told you I know over 2000 words in Polish? What about if I told you that I still can’t actually speak Polish?

As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. At least, it was true – I’m working on the speaking part now. But for some time, I’ve been exploring ideas of what fluency really means in language learning. Common sense dictates that, of course, fluency isn’t just knowing hundreds of words in a foreign language. But sometimes, you have to try something to confirm what common sense tells you. So I set off on a little Polish experiment: what if I just learnt all the words first?

Away with words

The language-canny amongst you might already see where this was heading. I should add that I never expected to reach conversational fluency this way. Rather, it was a trial to see just how far mass vocabulary learning can take a learner. There are plenty of courses that focus on rote-learning of vocab (Vocabulearn Polish, for example). Just how effective is the approach on its own, or, at least, as a springboard for more rounded learning later on?

Also, a disclaimer: I wasn’t completely new to Polish. I’ve had a casual interest in the language and culture ever since this formative TV moment at the age of 17. I’d learn a little Polish before, and knew the fundamentals of grammar. But fundamentals is perhaps an overstatement – I knew a handful of set phrases, a couple of noun cases and one verb conjugation.

The process

The whole thing was done pretty much on the cheap. I set about building a list in Anki based on a really old Polish text that I picked up for 50p in a second-hand bookshop: the 1948 edition of “Teach Yourself Polish”. Chapter by chapter, I’d strip the pages for new entries, and add them to Anki, tagging for parts of speech and topic. After I exhausted that (it contains maybe 1500 individual vocabulary entries or so), I turned to other texts I had at home (but never completed), like Routledge’s Colloquial Polish.

As I built the lists, I cross-referenced carefully using tools like Wiktionary, to check for mistranslations, obsolete terms and so on. That’s a pretty important step when using a text from 1948! However, the core vocabulary of a language doesn’t typically change drastically in any 70-year period, so I ended up with a pretty solid list of everyday words in the language (as well as some nice little oddities like jaskółka – a swallow, and borsuk – badger). 🐦

Input, test, repeat

I started doing my daily Anki routine right after my first words had been input. That meant that, for some weeks, I was learning words from early chapters, while typing them in from later ones. I found that helped, in fact; I’d become familiar with words for the first time when entering them, and then have an ‘echo’ of them when they came round in Anki. I certainly had a lot of success with recall that way.

Thankfully, there’s no damage that can’t be undone when learning languages. I’m back on track now with a structured textbook and regular one-to-one lessons with a Polish teacher. Those months learning the entire vocabulary of “Teach Yourself Polish” weren’t wasted – I now have a massive word bank at my disposal (even if learning to put them together is taking a lot of effort!).

Lessons learnt

So what did I learn, besides 2000 words, and how to be a walking dictionary?

Well, it clearly demonstrates two distinct mental processes when it comes to linguistic memory. There is the mental dictionary. And then there is the rule book. They can be learnt in isolation, but to really speak, they need to be learnt together.

Also, without learning them together, your power to retrieve words from memory can be a little mechanical and clunky. I had never practised firing off reams of words in the flow of conversation. I could answer like lightning if asked “what’s the Polish for apple?“. But when the time came to try and speak, my retrieval was just too slow to be useful.

It’s necessary to practise your vocabulary in the full stream of everyday speech; your brain must get used to pulling words quickly from memory as soon as they are needed.

By way of comparison, I notice a huge difference between my Polish and Icelandic. For me, the two languages are approximately at the same level on paper. However, speaking Icelandic in full sentences from the start, I come to a complete, faltering stop much less often.

Curating your own lists in Anki

It was also a great lesson in vocab organisation. Because I’d diligently tagged all of the entered words, I could leverage Anki’s search and filter to pull up custom vocab lists based on topic, or even parts of speech. What are all the adverbs of time I’ve learnt in Polish? Search the deck on ‘tag:adverb’ and ‘tag:time’, and hey presto. What about all the words for colours I’ve learnt? Pop in ‘tag:colours’ and there they all are.

This is important because of the power of ownership in language learning. These were my lists – they have particular salience to me, as I create and curate them. When entering them, I thought hard to think up tags that might be useful for sorting later. It’s quite satisfying to interrogate a mass of words in this way, and see the patterns and orders in them. And it works wonders for helping them stick in memory.

Interrogating lists of Anki words by tag

Interrogating lists of Anki words by tag

Gist king

Even in the absence of full syntax, it is now much easier to get the gist of most Polish texts.  Words alone are certainly not useless; they just serve the user better in a passive capacity.

The boosted banks are also a fantastic advantage now I am learning Polish in a more rounded,  systematic fashion. As I learn new structures, I have a ready-made treasure of words to drop into them.

Incidentally, it gave me a wonderful bird’s eye view of certain differences between Slavic languages, too. As a former learner of Russian, it was fascinating to see where Polish completely matched, or totally diverged from Russian.

An experience to repeat?

Has the experience been useful? Incredibly. Would I do it again? Certainly not with a completely new language that I knew nothing about in terms of grammar.

However, the sense of purpose and diligence it gave me was invaluable – I felt very actively engaged in the process of learning Polish. Not only that, but it was a masterclass in how to use Anki and take ownership of your vocabulary. As such, I shall definitely incorporate the same approach into further learning – only as a complimentary, rather than a principle, strand!

Data laser

Google Sheets magic tricks for language learners

The best language partners not only open your eyes to new words, but to new techniques. It is always the case with excellent iTalki teacher and polyglot friend Marcel Balzer, for example. Never short of fantastic tips, he recently shared a gem of a trick for language learning through the free, online spreadsheet software Google Sheets.

The magic happens thanks to the cross-pollination between Google Products, namely Sheets, and Google Translate. Using a simple formula, you can translate the text contents of one cell into another.

It is very easy to set up. Say you create two columns, A and B, headed German and English. In cell A2, you add a new German word you come across. In cell B2, you have the following formula:


As soon as the word is entered into the first cell, a handy quick translation will pop up in the second. You may recognise the short codes de and en as international abbreviations, which you can substitute for the languages you are learning. See this link for a full list of them.

You can be as creative with your pairings as you like; I’m currently experimenting with cross-translating vocabulary lists in Norwegian and Icelandic, for example. Great for filling gaps in a weaker language by referencing a stronger one!

Using automated Google Translate in a Google Sheets spreadsheet

Using automated Google Translate in a Google Sheets spreadsheet

Google Sheets Combo power

Google Sheets has many more tricks up its sleeve for the linguist open to a bit of tech exploration, though. With some imagination, you can create some quite powerful learning applications by combining them.

You can, for example, join together the text in several cells to create a single line of text. For example, if you have “j’ai” in cell A2, and “mangé” in cell B2, in cell C2 you could add:


The TEXTJOIN method pulls together the text contents of cells, and requires a couple of arguments, or pieces of information. The first ” ” is a space in quotes, and tells TEXTJOIN what to place between the words it joins together. Here, I use spaces, but you could use hyphens, commas, or whatever else is appropriate. The TRUE simply tells TEXTJOIN to ignore any blank cells that contain no text – if you want them included, change this to false. Finally, there is a list of all the cells containing the content you want to join (A2, B2). This can be as long as you need.

This is useful for words and phrases on their own. But more usefully, I found, was to use this along with target language words to build URLs. To explain why, it might be useful to outline one of the main methods I use to mine for new vocabulary.

The vocab mining process

When I actively seek out and check new vocabulary, I have a step-by-step routine. This will start in one of two ways, depending on which direction I’m learning it in. Sometimes, for example, I will realise that there is a gap in my target language vocabulary by comparing it with my native and other languages. It’s important to actively interrogate your languages like this, always looking out for gaps. Alternatively, I will just come across new vocab already in the target language when I read or listen to podcasts.

Google Translate

Once I have a word to look up, I use dictionary resources (online and offline), as well as Google Translate, to find a translation. Of course, Google Translate comes with many caveats, being a very blunt instrument for linguists. As a former teacher, I feel the pain of anyone marking a piece of homework that has so obviously gone through the Google mangle. However, as a quick vocabulary look-up tool, it is hard to beat.


Of course, you have to keep your wits about you when using it. And so comes the final step for me: Wiktionary. Wiktionary is a crowdsourced multilingual dictionary, full of detailed entries for countless words in a whole raft of languages. This includes multiple meanings, contextual examples and even detailed etymologies for many entries – all things that provide real hooks for the learner to understand and assimilate new lexical items.

By now, I should have a good overview of how the word fits into the target language. At this point, I will add it to Anki for learning and testing. The Anki entry may include brief usage notes from Wiktionary and other sources.

That’s a fairly simple procedure, but it does involve a bit of jumping around from site to site. However, if you look at the URLs of Wiktionary pages, they have a very regular form. For example:

You can leverage this kind of regularity when automating tasks. But how?

Chain of command

Enter TEXTJOIN, combined with the power of Google Translate! The chain goes like this: with an English word in cell A2, an automatic translation (say, into Icelandic) pops up in cell B2. Cell C2 then takes the output in cell B2 and builds a link to the relevant Wiktionary page, which I can click to check the entry:


This builds up a full link to a Wiktionary page referencing the word in B2, and the position on the page where the Icelandic entry appears (if it exists). Suddenly, it is a lot quicker and easier to perform my three-step vocab lookup.

Tip of the iceberg

There is a vast array of other methods available in Google Sheets. The above example is a fairly simple chain, but much more complex processes are certainly possible with a bit of creative play. They can be used in myriad ways, too. Google Sheets can be viewed by multiple users at the same time when shared, for example, and Marcel explains that he uses his along with his teacher during online lessons. New words are added to the sheet as they come up, and can be instantly cross-referenced.

Modest Marcel insists that the trick was not his invention, and merely came to him via another helpful polyglot colleague. Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful for the inspiration, which has triggered hours of geekish exploration! I pass it on in the hope of helping more fellow linguaphiles in the same way. Harness the power of Google, and happy learning!

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.


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


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