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.

Like climbing a mountain, making the most of your language lesson involves preparation!

Acing preparation for a good one-to-one language lesson

I’ve attempted Icelandic a few times in my life. That sounds ominous, that ‘attempted’, doesn’t it? Well, the truth is that I’ve found the language a real challenge each time. I’ve usually learnt it in the lead-up to a trip, then put it to bed for a while after my return. But last year, I decided to collect together the fragments of multiple start-stops and have a proper go at learning it upp á nýtt (back from scratch). 🇮🇸

Now, Icelandic is still extremely challenging to learn. I’d put it on a par with Russian for grammatical complexity, with the added downside that there is very little commercial material for learning the language. And I am far from the perfect student, squeezing my learning in here and there – and, perhaps ill-advisedly, learning several other languages at the same time.

However, over these past few weeks, I feel I’ve turned a corner. This week in particular, I had a one-to-one conversational Icelandic lesson on iTalki. And guess what? It actually went quite well! I’m not fluent by a huge stretch. But I stumbled, faltered and ummed and aahed just a little bit less. For the first time in forever, I feel I can actually speak Icelandic (after a fashion!), and not just rattle off phrases, parrot-style.

In this post I’ll look at how good preparation helped me to get the most from that lesson. I’ll also consider how that preparation could have been better, to squeeze even more out of my hour of speaking time.

Getting started

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I like to sketch out a few broad topic areas with rough vocabulary notes before a lesson. These topics are generally things I’ve been up to since the last session: travel, work, family / friends news and so on. For this lesson, I chose three: commuting to London, booking a trip to Iceland, and how I’d been practising Icelandic in the meantime (finding interesting articles online to translate).

I try to stick to a few rules in these pre-lesson notes. For example, complete sentences are out. Instead, I’ll write out vocab items and partial phrases, avoiding the temptation to create a script to read from. The aim is spontaneous(-ish!) conversation and flexibility as a speaker, rather than rote production of phrases. (Sidenote: there is definitely a place for the latter, especially in the very first stages of learning – Benny Lewis in particular has produced some brilliant guidelines on using scripts as a complete beginner.)

Sample preparation sheet

Here’s my prep sheet for this week’s lesson (complete with notes I scribbled during the lesson itself!). I typed it up in Evernote, then printed it to scribble on during the lesson. (Fellow Icelandic learners, please don’t use this as a learning resource yourself, as there are bound to be errors in it! It is really just my personal, rough scaffold for chatting, warts and all.)

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Because I already have a basic level in the language, the notes are slightly more complex or specific words and phrases to fit around that. In some cases it is brand new material, like “eins mikið og hægt er” (‘as much as possible’). I try extra hard to fit these in, as I’m more likely to memorise them through active usage. Other items include conversation cues, or main points of a story I want to tell. These simply keep me speaking and prevent the conversation from drying up.

This approach works a treat for me. It gives the start of the lesson a focus, so we can get right into it. It also provides the teacher with a lot of student-produced language – perfect for getting your grammar tweaked and vocab suggestions thrown your way.

Room for improvement

Of course, nothing is perfect. One shortfall was my lack of subject material. I’d managed to prepare three general “things I’ve been up to” sections, but started to struggle for novelty after 20-25 minutes, repeating myself a little. That wasn’t a problem, as there are always alternative activities to do in a lesson. But perhaps five or six rough prepared subjects to chat about would have bridged the gap.

Also, what you can probably tell from my notes is that I don’t always follow my own advice about brevity. Some of my lines are almost sentences. Not only that, but they tend to read in a slightly linear way. Like a script, an order is implied: I did A, then I did B, then C happened, then D will happen. I didn’t leave myself much room for improvisation.

Now, I wasn’t robotically reeling of those sentences in that exact order. But in future, I could make them even more efficient. As they are, they’re a little more fixed and restrictive than I’d like them to be. As a Social Sciences student, I found Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping techniques a fantastic support in note-taking; I think they’d work a treat in this scenario, too.

More than just the lesson

Lastly, what I haven’t mentioned above is all the other prep you do between lessons. The one-to-one hours are just single, brief points in your language learning schedule. Between lessons, you have to make a success of self-directed, wider learning, too. As I mentioned above (and in my chat notes!), I’d been a good student that week. I’d actively vocab-mined and exposed myself to lots of Icelandic in use by seeking out and translating online articles. (Nothing high-brow, mind – most of them were about the twists and turns in Iceland’s journey to pick a Eurovision song!)

No lesson is perfect (since no student is!), but I enjoyed this one and got a lot from it. Not every lesson goes so well, of course. Time is the biggest constraint on prep, and I’ve lost count of the occasions I wish I’d spent more of it on getting ready. Without exception, the better prepared you are to use language actively in a one-to-one, the more rewarding it is.

Books on a bookshelf

Bilingual books: tips and tricks for free online reading material 📚

Thanks to a recommendation from another polyglot friend, I’ve been exploring bidirectional translation as a new language learning method lately. It involves working with parallel texts in your target and native languages to strengthen vocabulary and grammar. The only snag: it can be difficult to source books with dual language versions of interesting texts.

Now, Penguin offers a good range of bilingual story books available in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, but an eager linguist will quickly eat through those and be left wanting.

Blockbuster books – in miniature

However, it is possible to get high quality translations of popular texts in many different languages, completely free. The trick is to use Amazon’s ‘free sample’ feature for Kindle books. This allows you to have the first few pages – sometimes a whole chapter or two – sent to your registered device. Simply browse the Kindle bookshop for foreign language titles of interest, then click ‘Send a Free Sample’ on the product page.

To help root out some titles, you can filter Kindle books by language. You can then filter out the fiction books (here are the French ones, for example), or look for non-fiction books that fit your own interests.

What use is a few pages of a story? Isn’t it frustrating to come to a sudden stop after one or two chapters? Well, it doesn’t have to be. If you choose translations of books you are already familiar with – Harry Potter books are a popular choice – then you already know the stories, and are just enjoying parts of them again in your target language. And, of course, if you really like them, you can purchase the full versions from Kindle later.

Pott(er)y for books

I’m like a broken record on the benefits of translated children’s books – particularly the Harry Potter series – for language learners. But they’re great language learning helpers for so many reasons:

  • the stories are familiar, so you can use gist make educated guesses about new vocabulary
  • the language is not particularly complex, as the intended audience was originally youngsters (particularly the early volumes)
  • the stories are broken up into fairly short chapters – an ideal length for the focus of a lesson or learning session

As a starting point, here are links to the first Harry Potter books on Amazon Kindle, in a range of languages. As an extra bonus, most of these titles can be borrowed in full at no cost if you are a Kindle Unlimited member!

And, of course, you can download the matching excerpt from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in English, so you have a perfect bidirectional pair.

Kindle samples are a goldmine for linguists to root around in. That goes particularly for those seeking texts for bidirectional translation, but more generally for anybody looking for quality, interesting reading material. Have you come across any gems? Share them in the comments!

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!

Real-life language can be unpredictable, like this tangle of colourful liquorice sweeties!

Preparing for the unpredictable – developing flexible language thinking

We’ve all been there. You’ve learnt the tenses. Have the vocab down pat. You have a head full of model questions and answers. You are totally ready for to be unleashed onto the target language streets. But – agh – what was that answer that came back at you? What was that word again, and why can’t you remember it now? And why is this so much harder than when you were learning it? Conversation so often doesn’t stick to the script, and we can be totally thrown by the responses to your perfectly practised communication attempts. Real life is just so darn unpredictable!

Well, rest assured that it isn’t just you. There is a psychological phenomenon dubbed ‘context reinstatement’ that explains just what on Earth is going on. It’s a fancy name for something many of us intuitively know anyway – that being perfect in a learn-and-drill situation does not prepare you for the unpredictability of real life.

Underwater understanding

Classic memory research by Godden and Baddeley shows how we find retrieval easier when the context is the same as the original learning environment. The psychologist duo split their subjects into two groups. One group learnt a list of 40 words underwater, and the other group learnt them on the beach. Then, they tested each participant’s recall of the words in either the same, or the alternative environment.

The result? On average, subjects remembered 40% more when tested in the same environment that learning took place in.

The lesson from this is not – disappointingly – that we should all buy scuba gear and go and learn languages in the water. Rather, we can assume that vocabulary and structures will be easier to recall in a classroom if they were first learnt in a classroom. The familiar surroundings contain lots of cues, networked to those original memories, that help them bubble up to the surface. This explains why you may perform brilliantly in a vocab test in class, but struggle to find a word in a shop or restaurant in your target language country.

Context – a blessing and a curse

Superficially, the effect of context on recall can sometimes be a useful tool. If you want to improve recall, then you can attempt to recreate the environment where you first learnt the material. Taking a French/German/Spanish exam? Then take in some familiar objects, like your favourite pencil case or pen. Maybe sit in the same desk for class tests, or even wear the same clothes. There really is some psycho-science behind having ‘lucky’ clothes in this case!

The trouble with extending these techniques is the impracticality, or often, sheer impossibility of them in real life. In reality, we have very little control over scenarios where we want to speak a foreign language! Language happens anywhere and everywhere – by its nature, it is unpredictable.

Training for the unpredictable

So, how can you prepare yourself for, literally, anything that could happen in a target language situation? First off, nobody will be able to do that. That is half the fun and excitement of speaking foreign languages – it’s a rollercoaster ride of social surprises. But you can increase your chances of coping well with that. The trick is to promote flexible, rather than fixed thinking in your learning routines.

Vary your study settings

There is a common study tip based on busting the context-dependency of Godden and Baddeley’s experiment. It is, quite simply, to vary the environment that you learn in. In theory, this prevents specific language memories from becoming too attached to elements that won’t be present in the field.

You can extend this idea of  ‘environment’ to the whole ecosystem you use to learn – the apps, websites and materials that you form your learning materials. Find yourself exclusively using Duolingo to practise languages? Then give Anki a try, and build some custom vocabulary lists. Only using fixed listening material from language courses? Then maybe it’s time to try some podcasts. Take the predictability out of your learning, and you may increase your ability to cope with it in the real world.

Fluid notes

It’s also worth addressing how you keep your phrase lists, crib notes and vocab records, too. A rigid, fixed, linear structure to memorising dialogues, for example, leaves little room for digression in actual conversations. A static list of ten words that you learn in order will, likewise, not really promote flexible use in the day-to-day.

Instead, think about creating frameworks for your vocabulary instead. Rather than complete sentences, learn structures that you can fit many different words into, depending on the situation. I should have…I’ve already … and so on – frames you can grab and fill in your head on the go.

Recycling material in different ways is key here, too. Maybe learning discrete lists of ten words is an effective memorisation technique for you. Stick with that if so, but introduce some variety to the way you practise them. Run through the words in a different order – maybe using a flashcard app like Anki – and challenge yourself to make different, even whacky, sentences with them each time you revise. Mix it up – make sure that no learning session is the same.

Speaking is supreme

Finally, books and static materials will never suffice for training for the unpredictable. Even the immersive, language-in-situ nature of podcasts won’t mimic the two-way dynamic of real-life conversation.

For that end, the old adage always applies: speaking is supreme in language learning. I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of iTalki for face-to-face language practise. I’ve been finding lots of extra time for regular Skype lessons, simply to chat with a real person. It can be hard, and it’s natural to feel an aversion to difficult things and hide from them. But if you stick at it, you’ll reap the confidence rewards of coping better and better with natural language.

Embrace the unpredictable

Human beings are creatures of habit, and love routine. That’s why these techniques might sometimes feel so hard to adopt, even though they seem like common sense. It can be disconcerting to mix up your learning approaches ceaselessly, or throw yourself into environments where you are tested on the spot. But in the long run, you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace change and variety, and become a more dynamic linguist for it!

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.