Non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures, are just as vital as speaking when it comes to real-life language use

Speaking without words: optimising your target language with non-verbal communication

Sticking to your target language isn’t always easy. But it’s a rule worth sticking to. Denying yourself the luxury of speaking your native language is vital in building up mental ingenuity and spontaneous, flexible thinking as a linguist.

However, it is a thing easier said than done. Especially when your vocabulary is limited as a language beginner.

Unpolished Polish

My most recent experience of this has been in Polish. I’ve been learning the language quite casually for a while. I really enjoy it, but maybe haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I’d like. As such, my level isn’t particularly high just yet (maybe an A2), but I can get by.

Just over a year ago, I visited beautiful Gdańsk for my first taste of Poland. I knew my Polish wasn’t brilliant, but I was determined to try and use it. Fairly quickly, I realised that this meant mastering more than just words. It was all about supporting my speaking with purposeful non-verbal cues and pointers.

Thrifty speaking shortcuts

You can pave the way for an efficient speaking-signing hybrid language by careful vocab prep. The trick is to learn words and constructions that have a general, rather than a specific application.

Demonstratives are essential – put this (one) and that (one) at the top of your list. Also, non-specific placeholder words like somethingsomeone and somewhere can be linguistic lifesavers when you are short on vocabulary. Add like …like this / like that, and you have an instant tie-in to hand gestures, pointing and more ways to get your intentions across without being a walking phrasebook.

Likewise, many languages have polite constructions for requesting something. Examples include Polish poproszę, French je voudrais, German ich möchte, Icelandic ég ætla að fá, Norwegian jeg vil gjerne ha and so on. These are transactional workhorses that you can use again and again. They combine perfectly with the general pointer words or gestures above.

If you lack those, even just saying the word/phrase for please, followed by the item you want, should work. If that still doesn’t work, gesticulating wildly will eventually yield the desired results. Just don’t be tempted to lapse into English!

Finally, words of possibility are very useful when combined with hand-talk. Just a simple is it possible? or can I?, combined with some pointing, will make it quite clear that you are asking for permission, for example.

Not just crutches

The fact is that planning for all these non-speech cues and helpers prepares you for real communication. How often is that you have tip-of-your-tongue moments in English, or struggle for the right word for something? And, like me, most people use gestures all the time to supplement everyday native language chat. So much of our regular interaction is non-verbal.

These are not simply crutches for the initial stages of language learning – they are part and parcel of human communication. Language is not simply words. It is an process set in a context of bodies, places and intentions. Working with that fact in your first steps learning a new tongue is no bad thing.

Notebook for note-taking

Note-taking: boost your language learning with old-school style

Technology has transformed the day-to-day business of the language learner. Note-taking is now a matter of a few clicks and taps. Always on, vast storage, and the ability to index and edit – modern devices, apps and browser widgets take the hassle out of collating and reviewing vocabulary .

But there’s almost something too easy about turning to electronics every time. Try as I might, I can’t quite shake off my old-school habits of pen and paper. There’s something about physically writing down notes that helps my brain to process them. It gives them salience, lifting them from the mundaneness of tapping some lines into a phone or computer. Here are a few tips for boosting your own language learning process with a bit of old-fashioned writing.

The workhorse: Pukka Pads

You have to start somewhere, and usually, that’s with the roughest sketches and scribbles. I find it helpful, for instance, to make pre-lesson notes on things I want to talk about with my teachers.

For rough drafts and ideas, you can’t beat an A4 Pukka Pad. The 3-pack is particularly good value on at the moment, and with 200 pages each, they should last a fair while.

When I’m preparing for a lesson or session, I’ll take a whole page of A4 to sketch out ideas and new vocab I want to practise. A4 is the perfect size to create speaking bingo sheets, too.

Embracing Pukka for note-taking doesn’t have to mean turning against technology, either. After my notes are done, I like to use a document scanner app to store them electronically. Scanner Pro for iOS is my favourite, and Adobe Scan is a good alternative for Android. This way, I also have access to my written notes any time, any place.

Old-school pride in your work

After the initial work, there is an important extra step: transferring to ‘best’. Admittedly, this is a hangover from my school days. Several of my teachers would give us kids a rough and a best exercise book for the school year. We’d do our note-taking and practice work in the former, then neatly write up our final work in the latter.

It might seem like meaningless escritorial vanity at first, but there’s a logic to this finickity madness. Writing up to best adds an element of selection and organisation that mimics the brain’s indexing of memories according to salience, or importance. It adds an extra stage of processing, giving weight to the bits we really value and want to keep.

The Monarch of note-taking: Moleskine

To boost that sense of salience, it’s a good idea to go all-out on your best notes. And there are few more appropriate vessels for these than a beautiful, classic Moleskine. They come in all shapes and sizes, but the slightly-larger-than-A5, standard Moleskine is my favourite. If, like me, you love your stationery, Moleskines are a real treat.

Premium-bound with an elasticated bookmark, the Moleskine notebook is a rewarding place to record your work. I like to organise mine by topic / language function pages. These range from individual language topics like ‘health’, ‘animals’ and so on, to pages for structures like ‘conversation fillers’ and ‘discussion / debate phrases’. If you want it to make it extra special, get yourself a nice fountain pen to fill it up.

Perfecting your process

So, in summary, this is our old-school, optimised note-taking process, with a bit of new-school thrown in:

  1. Pre-lesson and prep notes on a page of an A4 Pukka Pad
  2. Scan notes using a document scanner app like Scanner Pro
  3. Transferring notes and vocabulary to best in a beautiful Moleskine

It’s a simple approach, but it adds another useful level of cogitation and brain-processing to your language work. Keep that vocab churning – and enjoy that lovely, premium stationery while you’re at it!

Notebook for note-taking

Conversation turbo-boosting with speaking bingo sheets

I’ve been having something of an iTalki renaissance lately. iTalki, if you haven’t come across it already, is a website that connects language learners with teachers all over the world for online lessons. There are few easier ways to get some face-to-face tuition from a native speaker. And it is perfect for getting some conversation practice in.

Conversation is king

If you’re working on languages beyond entry / A1 level, general conversation is an important part of any lesson. For me, the best kind of iTalki lesson is one split between general chat in the target language, and structured learning. The latter can be organised through a grammar or textbook agreed with the tutor. But conversation is vital, being a safe space to practise the end goal of language learning: real-world communication. However, it’s daunting, and one of the biggest leaps of faith (in your own ability) to make.

Although lesson prices can be very reasonable on iTalki, they do mount up. But, somehow, I felt wasn’t getting the best value out of my lessons. It was nothing to do with the actual teaching. Rather, it felt like I was lacking a bit of dynamism on my part. And it was all to do with those conversations.

This is getting awkward…

I’d arrive in the Skype chat like a blank slate, ready to be instructed; a passive but eager student. But an hour is a lot of time to fill, one-to-one. Often, gaps would open up. Teacher and student would both be stumped for what to say next.

A bit of panic would sometimes fill these gaps, as I’d mentally grasp about, frantically thinking of something to say. A counter-productive instinct kicks in; the need to say something interesting, along with the realisation that the vocabulary for it is simply not there yet. In my floundering, something pops into my head in the target language, but I realise I already said it two minutes ago. I think of something else, but it won’t come out intelligibly as I lack the vocab or structures for it. Agh!

This kind of thing, if you’ve experienced it, can be really disruptive. It can trigger that spiral of confidence-eroding self-doubt, too. I hope I’m not a boring student… Am I really good enough to be trying to converse in X/Y/Z? The teacher must be reconsidering my actual level right now…

Just wanna be loved

First things first: it doesn’t mean you’re a bad linguist. Wanting to converse interestingly and fluently is a perfectly normal goal as a human being. It is connected to our basic need to be liked – which, when it all gets too much, can tip into neurosis. Psychology Karen Horney, for example, theorises it as one of the ten ‘neurotic needs’ that can be problematic when they get out of control.

We’ve all experienced it in our day-to-day conversations in our native languages – awkward pauses and strange silences with people we want to impress.

But I needed to stop this from making my lessons less effective. I needed a crutch. What I needed was a crib sheet of vocab and phrases to use in my classes.

Speaking bingo sheets

Now, crib sheets on themselves can be rather dull. To spruce up the concept, I decided to add an element of gamification.

First, I sketch out the words and phrases I want to focus on this week in conversation. They could be items that I’ve come across in my reading, or listening to podcasts. They might also consist of vocabulary I’ve looked up to describe things I’ve been up to that week, or topical items from the news.

Then, crucially, I’ll put a tick box next to each of them. 

During the lesson, I have my speaking bingo sheet in front of me. As I converse with the teacher, I make an active effort to use my words and phrases, and tick them off as I do. Obviously, conversation is organic, and I won’t have chance to use them all. But the unused ones can go onto the next lesson’s sheet, and the process continues.

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons

A speaking bingo sheet for supporting conversation lessons


Don’t overscript it

Speaking bingo sheets shouldn’t be rigid, like a script. The aim is to support more natural speech through a set of cues. For instance, you might note down a central theme – I used ‘Remembrance Day’ in a recent Polish example (above) – and spider off some related words like ‘war’, ‘army’, ‘parade’ and so on.

In terms of phrases and language patterns, a frame or scaffold approach works best. This kind of technique is very popular for literacy in schools, but it works a treat for speaking lessons too. One example might be to have the phrases ‘I went to…’, or ‘I am going to…’ ready on your sheet to use several times with different vocab slotted in.

I also find it useful in the early stages to have a list of general opinion phrases that you can slot in anywhere. Just simple reactions like ‘great’, ‘terrible’ and so on. Also, ‘I (don’t) agree’ is a good conversation keeper-upper!

Why it works

We reinforce linguistic memories through usage, and through positive and negative associations that give them salience. To capitalise on that, you should fill your bingo sheets with favourite turns of phrase and interesting vocab you really want to ‘stick’. It sounds trivial, but if I feel proud of myself for working in a lovely, colloquial phrase like mér finnst það gott! (I like it!) into an Icelandic lesson, I’ve reinforced that vocab item with a positive emotional association.

Give them a go!

Speaking bingo sheets have really helped me to get the most out of my iTalki lessons. It’s part of being a well-prepared student (and a well-prepared teacher certainly deserves that!). Now, if I don’t use them for whatever reason, I really notice a difference.

Give them a go – and enjoy the flow!

Exploring language family tree connections can be one of the most useful polyglot learning tools

Polyglot perfect recall: connecting your languages with Wiktionary

One of the nicest things about the polyglot journey is the interconnectedness you see along the way. And finding connections is a brilliant way to make words stick. Sometimes, those connections are staring you right in the face, like the German Flasche (bottle), a relative of the English word flask. But more often than not, it’s the less obvious connections that can be the most rewarding (and memorable).

Polyglot pants

Sometimes, you see connections in the most unlikely of places. Take Lowland Scots and Romanian, for example. Both Indo-European, but pretty far removed from each other. I happen to hear a lot of Scottish English, being based in Edinburgh. So when I came across the Romanian verb îmbrăca (to dress), I thought I spotted something familiar.

That -brăc- part of the word is, in fact, from an old Latin word for ‘trousers’, braca. So in Romanian, you literally ‘trouser yourself’ when you get dressed. Now, with these clues, some will instantly spot the connection. The Scots for ‘trousers’ is breeks, also related to the slightly more archaic breeches in Standard English or britches in Yosemite Sam country. That’s a handy hook between two unlikely language pairs to help remember a word!

Mining for connections

Unless you are a walking etymology dictionary, it can be hard to spot these connections. To this end, it’s much handier to look up new words on the open source dictionary site, Wiktionary. For a community-driven site, it’s absolutely packed with detail, including word origin.

Take the German word Zaun (fence), for example. At first glance, it looks pretty removed from anything familiar in English. However, check out the Wiktionary listing; it turns out that the word is a relative of the English town. With a bit of historical imagination, you can think up reasons why the meanings have slightly diverged. The town, or settlement, is an enclosed living space; the fence is a means for enclosing a space.

Word hangover

Languages derived from the same proto-family, like Indo-European, are bound to display these similarities. But often, you can find them in neighbouring languages from totally different trees, too.

If you’re learning Finnish and Russian, for example, you’ll find a few crossover words to help you. One of my favourites is the word kohmelo, meaning ‘hangover’. Check Wiktionary, and you’ll see that it’s a borrowing from the Russian похме́лье, meaning the very same. However, as a bonus, Wiktionary informs you that the Finnish word was further changed by ‘contamination’ with the word kohme, meaning numbness. So that’s three words you’ve learnt for the price of one, thanks to some canny connection-spotting!

Cultivate a bird’s eye view of language

If you travel back far enough, you’ll find all sorts of links between your languages. It’s one more reason why studying several languages at once can be a help, and not a burden. The polyglot approach is a fantastic way to get a bird’s eye view of language relationships and development; in my experience that has provided a great scaffold for making those words stick.

Which are your favourite word connections between languages?
Share them in the comments!

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!

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

Anki, the vocab monster

Did you think learning vocabulary in a foreign language was just about memorising lists of words? Well, there’s a science to it. And Anki, a free flashcard learning system, has it down to a tee.

I’ve made frequent mention of the program in previous blog posts, and it’s formed a key part of my learning strategy since I started experimenting with it last year. I’m using it to drill and practise a couple of different languages, but here, I’ll focus on my experiences with it to achieve a decent working vocabulary in Polish.

Getting started

I hear it from several language-loving friends, and I felt the same at first: it’s a little bit intimidating at first. Its basic, unstyled interfaces can be offputting for the newcomer, and for certain things – like styling your cards – it is helpful to know a little tech magic like HTML. However, there are some helpful videos on the fundamentals at this link. And further assistance is just a YouTube search away, as there is a vast number of active users online, posting tips and hints. This excellent video introduction is a good example, and a great place to start.

Of course, all the magic is under the hood; it’s in the algorithms that Anki uses to drip-feed you vocab, day by day, and decide which words need more practice, and how often. It just requires a little work on your part, in curating your word lists.

feeding the Anki monster

There’s one key rule to maintaining pace with Anki: keep filling it up. Treat it like a vocabulary monster than needs a regular bucket of new words every so often to keep it fierce. You can add hundreds of words in one fell swoop at the beginning, and let the program do its stuff over the following weeks and months. It will select 25 new words from the bank a day, adding them to previously viewed words to recycle in each session. Eventually, it will run out of new words, and you’ll just be in memory maintenance mode.

Adding huge swathes of vocabulary in one go isn’t practical, though. It’s boring, for a start. And how do you decide on a source right at the beginning of your language learning journey? Also, vocab learning should be – in my opinion – an ongoing, lifelong process, and I feel my own use of Anki should reflect that.

Instead, then, I decided to just stay a few weeks ahead of myself with adding words. I chose a primary text for learning Polish – a very old edition of Teach Yourself Polish – and made a note to myself to add 2-3 chapters of vocabulary from it each week. I did this religiously, and within a few weeks I’d added a whole book’s worth of words.

However, making this a regular habit also allowed me to add in extra sources of vocabulary when I came across them. Along the way, I started to use the excellent Routledge Basic Polish – A Grammar and Workbook and Intermediate Polish – A Grammar and Workbook. As I found useful words in the examples, I’d add those in too. To keep things tidy, I’d add a sub-deck of flashcards to mark vocabulary from different sources separately.

Vocabulary mining

As well as books, I found two other useful ways to mine for vocabulary: self-interrogation and headline hunting.

In the first case, I’d actively interrogate my vocabulary as it was presented to me each day. If the words ‘shirt’, ‘trousers’ and ‘dress’ popped up, I’d ask myself: have I come across the word for ‘t-shirt’ yet? I’d check my vocab list, Google Translate the missing word, double-check it in Wiktionary, and add it to the bank if necessary. (I always use a couple of electronic resources with word-checking – never just a single one. Cross-referencing ensures you don’t end up with any dodgy mistranslations in your word bank!)

Headline hunting speaks for itself – I’d find a new site, and scan down the headlines for new or unusual words. Again, I’d Google Translate, check in Wiktionary and add to the bank. If I only do this once a week, it still generates a trickle of extra vocab to keep the monster fed.

Notably, I decided that vocabulary didn’t just mean ‘words’. Throughout my mining, I’d take model phrases, sayings, turns of speech – anything that I thought could be useful. Doing so meant that I could use Anki to revise simple structure, as well as dictionary items.

Tags are key

Crucially, I’d also add keywords to each vocabulary item. These were mainly based on broad topics that I could assign to each individual word; examples were ‘food and drink’, ‘clothes’, ‘colours’ and so on.

This turned out to be invaluable, given that the vocabulary was not thematically organised in the source material. After adding the words along with keyword tags, I could sort topically later on, pulling out all the ‘colours’ words for revision, for example. It’s especially satisfying when you call up a search list like this, and see how many different sources have gone into building your learning material.

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

First-pass learning

The very act of adding words to Anki doubles up as a sort of pre-learning phase. I never make a conscious effort to remember vocab as I’m typing it into the app. But inevitably, some items will catch my attention, and there’ll be a fair bit of residual recall when they pop up later in the program. I call this ‘first-pass learning’, and it’s often enough to provide a hook by the time the words get a second pass when popping up as scheduled.

This ‘learning proper’ phase could happen any time, in any place, thanks to the Anki app. I usually find myself squeezing those 10-15 minutes into train journeys – it’s a great way to fill otherwise ‘dead time’.

For Android users, the experience is still completely free, thanks to a third-party tool app on Google Play. However, for us iPhone people, the iOS app is a slightly pricey purchase at £23.99 / $24.99. Nonetheless, there are ways to approach that price tag on a budget of nothing. I bagged some free iTunes vouchers on Swagbucks for mine – see here for my experience with that!

Lieutenant Anki, language-learning regiment

The greatest thing is that Anki has regimented and regularised my vocabulary learning. Where I could be a little chaotic, now I have organisation. The system forces you to stay on top of things, too; miss a couple of days, and the list of words to learn and revise grows bigger and bigger. Stick to little and often and you won’t work up a backlog!

I’ve now thoroughly learnt over 1000 Polish vocabulary items. In fact, Anki has been so successful at drilling them, my vocab level has far outstripped my grammar – one possible downside to blitzing your words like this! But as I learn grammar at a slightly less frenetic pace, having a large knowledge of words to use with new structures is definitely a bonus. And I’m still experimenting with ways to drill grammar and structure in Anki, too.

In short, I’m now hooked on Anki. I’m proud of my curated word lists, as they are a record of how far I’ve travelled on each language learning journey. They’re highly personal, and, for that, I’m all the more motivated to work with them and learn them. If you’ve ever tried and have felt put off, please persevere – it’s definitely worth it!

The Houses of Parliament, the seat of British politics

Politics is good for you (and your language learning!)

We’ve all had enough of politics, right? Well, a bit of it might be good for you, if you’re learning a foreign language.

One of the biggest advantages of following politics in your target language is not just in new vocabulary learnt. It’s about the polemic – the skill of explaining and arguing a point. The skill of using language for argument and persuasion – rhetoric – is fundamental if you’re preparing for spoken exams that require you to discuss an issue, for example.

In fact, it’s a vital skill even if you’re not aiming for A-level oral exam stardom. Learning a language truly to communicate means being able to discuss, and not simply state facts. And if politics is anything, it’s an arena for (sometimes very heated) discussion. Introducing some politics into your language learning can provide a communicative dynamic that other topics struggle to ignite.

A new picture – or the wider picture?

So with so much politics about these days, why should we go after even more? Well, if you’re sick of politics in your own country, overseas political scuffles can be a welcome distraction. On the other hand, you can gain a fuller picture of your home country issues by following how they are perceived abroad. It’s truly fascinating as a British learner to see how political parties in other countries approach topics like Brexit. You can gain a unique perspective on your own country that the home media will never provide.

Following overseas political developments pays off in other ways, too. Through widening your own political lens, you appreciate much more the interconnectedness of the world. As linguists, we’re already great at seeing beyond borders. But bringing an explicitly political slant into your learning really plugs you into this global aspect of humanity.

Where to start

As with all authentic materials, the best place to start is personal interest. There’s little fun in only following a kind of politics that you don’t subscribe to in your home country. So begin with the political party / parties you support, and find their analogues in the target language country.

Doing this is as simple as googling “political parties in [your target language country here]”. You should get plenty of results, with Wikipedia articles being amongst the most useful. The following table from Wikipedia, for example, shows not only the current parliamentary parties in Norway, but also lists their ideologies. Great for matching your own politics to a target language party!

Politics in Norway - parliamentary parties listed on Wikipedia

Politics in Norway – parliamentary parties listed on Wikipedia

Once you’ve found a party / parties you’re have an interest in, take to social media to find out more. Major parties will invariably have a Facebook and Twitter account to follow. Their websites may also have blogs or news feeds, which you can add to your news reader if you have one (Feedly is quite good).

It’s always a good idea to follow target language accounts in your daily social media feeds. For one thing, it means that you’ll regularly be exposed to snippets of language, even when you’re not in ‘learning mode’. It helps to maintain a degree of language immersion in your day-to-day, which ultimately will lead to greater fluency.

Politics : the perfect package for new language

Once subscribed, the format of the language can be ideal for learning. Political language on social media is packaged perfectly for this purpose – possibly for all the wrong reasons! For one thing, it regularly consists of largely superficial soundbites. However, these represent concise, condensed nuggets of vocabulary and structure, and can be very easy to memorise. Consequently, you can work them into your own conversations or discussions in the language without too much effort.

Additionally, the format of some social media platforms is perfect for presenting language to learners. Twitter, with its character limit, forces the author to make snappy, impactful arguments in just a few words. Logical argument and rhetoric can often become keener under these circumstances, when the ‘fluff’ is pared down.

Twitter feed of the German SPD

Twitter feed of the German SPD

There is, of course, the danger of the ‘filter bubble’ or ‘echo chamber’. If you only follow parties you broadly agree with, you will lack a challenge to your argument. If you can stomach it – and are a real sucker for political punishment – it can be useful to follow some opponent organisations too.

Alternatively, to supplement all this you can also follow political news on target language news sites. In German, for example, I find that and the Frankfurter Allgemeine sites are superb for political news and commentary. Their advantage is (at least in theory) being non-partisan with a more balanced overview. The disadvantage is that they contain much weightier, wordier texts – a far cry from the soundbites and slogans of political feeds.

Control the flow and reap the benefits

As with all things, moderation is important. I’ve written an earlier post on the importance of detoxifying your social media feeds. Politics can be frustrating and exhausting to follow. But if you make it work for you as a linguist, it can be a real boon to your language (and wider) learning.

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

Taming Anki’s ‘new card’ quota to pace your vocab learning

Anki is an amazing beast of a language-learning tool. But, like all beasts, it can be a bit intimidating. I’ve been using it for over a year now, and still learn new things about it all the time. I’ve recently discovered a simple trick to avoid being overwhelmed by its relentless rate of daily card testing.

On Anki, you organise your flashcard learning into decks. These could be different subjects, like Sociology and Psychology; for linguaphiles, they’re more likely to be different languages.

How Anki schedules new cards

Now, Anki schedules a certain number of new cards to present you with every day. The default is 25. However, those are spread out across all your decks. When you hit the tally of 25 new cards, then you won’t come across any more new ones that day – in any deck.

The Anki dashboard (Mac desktop version)

My Anki dashboard (Mac desktop version) – new cards scheduled are in blue.

I’ve only recently noticed how useful this can be for paced learning. For instance, if you’re working on several languages at once, you’ll probably have one you find a bit easier – a ‘maintenance’ language as opposed to a full-blown, totally new one. In my case, I’ve been adding lots of words in Norwegian that are either already familiar, or quite easy to learn. On the other hand, I’ve been adding a lot of words in Polish that are really, really hard to remember.

Rest your difficult languages when you need a break

When testing daily, I can give myself an ‘easy’ day by hitting Norwegian first. That way, the ‘new card’ tally is used up on my maintenance language, and I have a day off new Polish words! Note that it doesn’t let me off my Polish completely – but I’ll only be retesting words I’ve already learnt in that language.

This works best when you’re regularly adding vocabulary cards to all your Anki language decks. It highlights the fact that language learning is never ‘done’. You should be actively reading even in your ‘easy’ languages, and adding to your vocab bank all the time. The upshot is the availability of ‘easier’ cards when you need them. And we all need an easier ride from time to time!

A cheeky monkey - a staple of humour!

Humour and language learning: fuel your vocab with idioms!

Humour can be a great aide memoire when learning foreign languages. For one thing, humour increases the salience – or importance – our brains attach to learning material. We’ve all experienced how it’s easier to learn something that isn’t boring!

What’s more, many research studies have repeatedly demonstrated how humorous material can enhance learning. It can boost recall – it’s one of the reasons the keyword system of vocabulary learning can be so effective. It can reduce anxiety in an education setting. And some, like this one, even suggest that the dodgier, morerisqué the content, the better the effect!

So, where to look for humour in your target language? Perhaps the best place to start is the quirky turns of phrase, aphorisms and idioms, that are very particular to a given tongue. Just take English, for example: it’s not hard to smirk at such gems as . One reason language is so full of them is that our brains latch onto the entertaining imagery in them, operating along these lines of salience and ensuring that they’re easy to recall later on. It’s the same reason that the wild, fantastical stories of oral literary traditions were passed down the generations by memory for centuries before being written down.

Hunting for humour

The easiest way to source these is to simply Google for “funny idioms in French / German / Spanish / your language”. Humour is popular, and there’s therefore no shortage of collections of funny sayings for language learners!

Once found, the best way to integrate them into your learning is to pick out a few of your favourites, and add them to your own personal word lists. These could be offline, in a notebook, or in your favourite vocab / drill program like Anki Flashcards.

However, since idioms lend themselves to some hilarious, imaginative visuals, it’s a good idea to harness that in your learning, too. As a starting point, there’s a superb book of Castilian sayings for learners, which illustrates each saying with a simple but funny cartoon: 101 Spanish Idioms. Although the hard work is done for you here, it’s even more fun and satisfying to create your own illustrations, especially if you like to doodle. For simple scribbles, for example, I like to use to use Notability or Procreate for iOS. Find a saying, create a sketch, then export it to use in flashcards, or add to a drilling program like Anki.

More vocab for your buck

But don’t just learn the phrase – break it down, and mine it for vocab. Take the Spanish phrase tomar el pelo (to pull someone’s leg). It literally means ‘to take the hair’ (weird, right?). But from that phrase, you get two extra words for your vocab list, ‘to take’ and ‘hair’, both of which are pretty useful. So add them as separate items to your word bank, and you get multiple hits for the price of one.

Humour in idioms: some favourites

Without further ado, here are a few of my own favourite humorous idioms in a range of languages. As you’ll see, many of them are based on animals or food – strangely recurrent themes when researching the world of weird idioms!

English 🇬🇧

mad as a box of frogs 🐸🐸🐸
completely crazy, eccentric

French 🇫🇷

avoir le cafard
to have the cockroach 🐞 (I know that’s a ladybird – there’s no cockroach emoticon yet!)
to be depressed

Dutch 🇳🇱

een appeltje met iemand te schillen hebben
To have a little apple to peel with someone 🍏
To have a bone to pick with someone

The English translation is just as odd and quirky as the Dutch!

Finnish 🇫🇮

juosta pää kolmantena jalkana
to run with the head as a third leg 🏃🏽
to be in a mad rush

Just an aside: it was tricky to find Finnish idioms that didn’t contain some very dodgy language – this was by far the cleanest in my little ‘net search!

German 🇩🇪

Schwein haben
to have pig 🐷
to have good luck

Icelandic 🇮🇸

ekki upp í nös á ketti
not enough to fill a cat’s nose 🐱
very little

Italian 🇮🇹

trattare a pesci in faccia
To treat with fish in the face 🐟
To disrespect

Norwegian 🇳🇴

født bak en brunost
born behind a brown cheese
a bit dim

Some useful general vocab here, plus a lovely nugget of Norwegian culinary culture!

Polish 🇲🇨

myśleć o niebieskich migdałach
to think of blue almonds
to daydream

dzielić skórę na niedźwiedziu
to divide the skin while it’s still on the bear 🐻
to count your chickens before they’ve hatched

Another one where the English translation is just as animalistic and odd!

Russian 🇷🇺

делать из мухи слона (dyelat’ iz mukhi slona)
to make an elephant from a fly 🐘
to make mountains out of molehills

…another pair of translations which are as colourful and zoological as each other!

Spanish 🇪🇸

arrimar el ascua a su sardina 🔥 🐟
to bring the coals closer to one’s sardine
to look out for number one, be selfish

Swedish 🇸🇪

nära skjuter ingen hare
near shot, no rabbit 🐰
close but no cigar

Do you have more personal favourites from your own language explorations? Please share – more laughs are always a welcome thing!

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

Sentence building: Go beyond words with Tatoeba

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

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

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

Google Translate is great for single word look-ups.

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

Habeas corpus (linguisticus)

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

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

Words in context

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

Putting your vocab in context with Tatoeba.

Putting your vocab in context with Tatoeba.

Build your own sentence lists

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

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

Combine with Anki

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

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

Changing the language pairing in a Tatoeba export.

Changing the language pairing in a Tatoeba export.

Find ready-made Tatoeba Anki decks

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


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

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