A memory knot tied to a finger (image from freeimages.com). Greek passive verbs like 'remember' can be tricky to conjugate.

Greek passive verbs in the past – quick tricks

I’m all for pattern-spotting and quick heuristics for faster fluency. If something will help me communicate faster, it’s a win in my book.

That’s why I was recently chuffed to add a special new trick to my Greek arsenal. Specifically, it relates to the past tense of passive verbs. Well, I say passive, but many Greek passives correspond to active forms in English, and are quite high frequency:

θυμάμαι thimáme I remember
κοιμάμαι kimáme I sleep
φοβάμαι fováme I fear

Passive Knowledge

Passive conjugation is very different from the active in Greek. You usually come across it quite late in Modern Greek textbooks, too, so it can be an issue for many beginner to intermediate students.

Thankfully, there’s a shortcut that works for many of them. Namely, -άμαι (-áme) often becomes -ήθηκα (-íthika) in the first person past tense. Strictly speaking, that past is actually the aorist, the tense that expresses a single, completed action in the past. So we have:

θυμήθηκα thimíthika I remembered
κοιμήθηκα kimáme I slept
φοβήθηκα fováme I feared

Of course, that’s not the whole picture. But that -ηκα (-ika) fragment appears almost everywhere in other passive conjugations, like a variation on a theme. With a few extra rules, like -ζομαι > -στηκα (-zome > –stika) and -εύομαι > -έυτικα (-évomai > –éftika), you can cover even more:

ονειρεύομαι onirévome I dream ονειρεύτηκα oniréftika I dreamt
εργάζομαι ergázome I work εργάστηκα ergástika I worked

Once you have those active rules down, it’s pretty easy to extend it to other common conversational forms like ‘you …’ – for that, simply replace -a with -es:

θυμήθηκες thimíthikes you remembered
εργάστηκες ergástikes you worked
κοιμήθηκες kimíthikes you slept

As a rule of thumb, it works quite well for speeding up conversation forms. And of course, if you misapply it, or use it on a verb that doesn’t fit the pattern, the person-and-tense markers of -ηκα/-ηκες are strong enough that (hopefully) you’ll still be understood. There’s no shame in mistakes when you’re learning – especially if they don’t get in the way of communication!

I’m a big fan of learning frequent forms over whole verb tables generally – it’s a trick that just works. Hopefully, with this handful of –ηκα and –ηκες, you’ll be set to speed up your own Greek conversations too!

Polish verbs of motion - my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Slavic Kryptonite: Vanquishing Verbs of Motion

Every foreign language has its kryptonite. Sometimes it’s a common sticking point that takes most learners time to really get. Other times, it’s a personal stumbling spot for an individual learner. For me, it’s verbs of motion that are my strength sappers.

So why are they so difficult? Or, rather, why do I find them so difficult? I’m not denying the possible existence of some polyglot supermind that simply understands them at a click of the fingers (and I bow down to that mind!). But, for me, verbs of motion take time to grasp as a native speaker of a non-Slavic language. Namely, they have an extra layer of granularity compared to the comparatively simple come and go in English.

First of all, like many languages, Polish makes a distinction between going by foot and going by vehicle. Nothing strange there – for example, decidedly non-Slavic German does the same with gehen and fahren.

But in Polish (as well as many of its Slavic sibling and cousin languages – perhaps all of them, although I’m sure someone better-versed can correct me!), there is also a split between going once and going frequently or repeatedly. These can be formed from quite unsimilar roots, too; to go (on foot) in Polish is either iść or chodzić. So, we have:

  • idę do szkoły
    I go / am going to school (now)
  • chodzę do szkoły
    I go to school (regularly, as I work / study there, for example)

Brain Dump Horror

So far so good, then; just a few extra nuances and verb tables to learn. Now, I thought I had those covered, but there’s always room for revision. So, one evening this week, I decided to do a brain dump to check what I remembered. Brain dumpage, of course, is always worth doing regularly to audit your language skills. I splurged as much as I could remember onto a sheet of paper, then checked my results against a good grammar book.

It wasn’t pretty.

Polish verbs of motion - my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Polish verbs of motion – my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Present tense? No problem. Past and future? A disaster.

To be fair, I could have seen it coming. My poor iTalki Polish teacher has been subject to my unconfident fumblings for the right going word for some time already.

It was time to sort it out.

Verbs of Motion : A Strategy

Here’s the thing: knowing conjugations and grammatical intricacies off-by-heart are important for serious study of a language. But if your goal is to speak fluently, then simply having a few common forms confidently in memory is arguably more useful. In any case, some linguists, like Bybee, argue that this is how we build up and reference our native languages too – not as grammatical tables and rules, but as interconnected exemplars in the mental lexicon, ready-for-use, pre-conjugated models from exposure that we use for reproduction.

Of course, you could say that my Polish-learning brain was doing a bit of that already. If you look at my red-bepenned brain dump above, the past tense bits of to godid get right were the first, second and third person masculine forms – probably frequent parts in my own conversation.

But then, what about what I do with other people? The we bits of the paradigm clearly needed some work. And then, talking about friends and family – for that, let’s add in the they parts. Gradually, a picture emerges of what I need to add to my vocab drilling. This useful list at the ready, I then add them into Anki as individual vocab items, and they’re on the conveyor belt to stronger recall. Here are a few for illustration:

  • pójdę
    I will go (on foot, once)
  • (po)jadę
    I (will) go (by transport, once)
  • szliśmy
    we went (on foot, once)
  • jechałem
    I went (by transport, once)
  • jeździłem
    I used to go, would go (by transport, multiple times)

…and so on. Fingers crossed, talking about moving and shaking will start sorting itself out soon.

Break it down, build it up

It’s a great trick, but time-old and simple: break a bigger problem down to slowly build up your competencies. You can apply it to verb patterns in many foreign languages, not just Polish, as well as any other aspect that seems too multifaceted and complicated to grasp all in one fell swoop.

The next time I do a brain dump of Polish verbs of motion, I hope I’ll get a few more right. And if I do, I expect it will have more to do with working on those key forms, rather than developing a photographic memory of entire verb tables.

Polylogger makes tracking your study hours easy. And it can throw up some revelations! Image from freeimages.com

Polylogger Revelations

I finally boarded the Polylogger train and joined the enthusiastic activity tracking community a couple of weeks ago. And to tell the truth, it’s been a bit of a revelation.

Chances are you might well have beaten me to the best seats already. Polylogger already has a well-established, sizeable, active and very sociable fanbase on social media. In fact, it was on Twitter that I first spotted fellow language aficionados singing its praises, so it seemed timely to hop on board already. Better late than never!

Getting started was a cinch. It’s quick and easy to sign up, and the study diary tools are a piece of cake to use. When you get into the swing of things, logging – and watching those graphs grow – is real language geek fun. I love being motivated by what other people are working on, and have already spotted a couple of new resources I didn’t know about through community entries.

But to make the most of the tool, it was what I should be logging that I needed to sort out first and foremost.

That is, what counts as a study session? Just those substantial chunks of time, like hour-long iTalki sessions? Or every little thing, including the odd couple of minutes minutes here and there on casual language apps, or a brief podcast listen during breakfast?

The great #langtwt community, once again, had the answers. It should definitely include the latter. After all, those little bits and pieces all add up. So, off I went, logging my language learning life.

But what secrets did Polylogger have to reveal?

Polylogger : exposing your true habits

By far, its most scandalous exposé for me is the mismatch between what I think I focus on, and what I actually do spend most of my time on. Let’s call it delusion-busting, since I certainly had a very different idea about what I was getting up to. In my mind, I split my main language learning time equally between Greek and Polish. They’re my current active learning projects right now, and I’ve been having at least one iTalki lesson in both every week, as well as fitting in independent activities. I’d actually set Polish as my default language, assuming it was the one I was prioritising most, even attending extra group classes with my tutor.

The thing is, the Polylogger stats do not lie. Shockingly, I’ve actually been spending hours more on Greek. Pretty much twice as many, in fact. How could I not know that?

After analysing the diary stats, the reason jumped out (and was pretty easy to guess in any case). It’s back to that logging every little thing strategy. The numbers show that I naturally fall to Greek when I do my little daily pass-the-time activities like Anki, Duolingo and Glossika. In the long run, that was a massive added value for Greek, and none for Polish. Polish was certainly no poor cousin, and I was working in a couple of major sessions a week – just not the cascade of extras that Greek enjoyed.

No wonder I’ve been finding Greek easier and easier while my Polish level continues to edge along so gradually. Thanks to Polylogger, I can start to rethink my strategy and redress that bias.

Polylogger has been a revelation in itself, providing extra focus and deeper insights into my learning. Whether you’re new to the tool too, or a seasoned user, feel free to add newbie @richwestsoley to your circle!

A big slice of cheese. And Anki moved mine! Picture from freeimages.com

Who Moved My Cheese? Anki media folder, Mac edition

It is actually a fair while since I last tinkered under the Anki hood. I haven’t needed to, to be honest. I’d set everything up just right for my current clutch of active and maintenance languages way back, and everything was chugging along nicely.

But polyglot dreams never sleep for long. The need for a fresh round of customising came from an exciting new side project, Croatian. Easy, I thought. I’ll rustle up some cute Croatian card layouts, complete with a cute wee flag.

The problem: everything had changed!

Frustratingly, it was no longer possible to access the media and backup folders from the app itself. There must be some rationale behind this, of course, and it’s not hard to reason why. Wrong moves when messing with app files can be dangerous for your precious vocab database.

But, for low stakes operations like simply dropping an image into the media folder, it seems reasonable to have access to it (with a helpful dose of caution!). Unfortunately, there’s a dearth of how-to out there right now. It took a bit of Googling and re-Googling to find the answer. But, finally, I sorted it.

And here’s how!

Anki media folder (Mac)

The Anki library folder now lives in the following place on a Mac:

/Users/[your_username]/Library/Application Support/Anki2/[your_anki_name]

However, the path is probably hidden to you from the Library level up. To get round that, bring up your username folder (Users/[your_username]) in Finder. Then,  hold down command (⌘), shift and the full stop (period, .) key to show hidden files and folders. You should now see a whole load of extra items, including the Library folder. Drill down from there along the above path, and you should end up in your Anki directory.

If it’s not there, then it’s also worth trying the ‘all users’ version of that path:

/Library/Application Support/Anki2/[your_anki_name]

Once you’ve located it and entered the (now) secret lair, it’s still collection.media we’re interested in as before. You can drop whatever you like in here, and refer to it in your card templates and other custom Anki items – just like in the old days!

Once you’re done, of course, you might well want to hit command (⌘), shift and the full stop again go hide all those oddly-named bits and pieces – until the next time!

 

Social bookending can help glue your foreign language conversations together. Image of paper dolls from FreeImages.com.

Social Scaffolding from the Past

Social bookending is one of my favourite foreign language conversation hacks. In a nutshell, it’s the process of building a bank of starter, fillers and closers that support you in everyday speaking. It’s a topic I return to again and again, as it’s well worth spreading the word. As far as fluency tricks and convo prep tricks go, I find it’s amongst the most effective.

Social Glue: Fast and Slow

That said, you wouldn’t know it from looking at most language learning resources. In pretty much all the books I’ve come across, learning social glue is a purely cumulative affair, gradual and measured. Quite reasonably, of course, textbooks tend to build up that bank of colloquialisms over the course of many lessons. Which is great if you want to stick rigidly to the route the book intends for you.

But not if you need to get up to scratch quickly and hold fluid conversations early on.

For the straight-in-at-the-deep-end language aficionado, It’s beyond handy to have all of those conversation helpers in one place. And it’s even better to have them right in front of you, speaking bingo sheets style, to glance down at during convo practice. I highly recommend starting your own foreign language social script crib sheets!

Lessons from the Past

With a bit of digging, though, you might get a head start. During my recent foray into language book past, I found out that social speaking scaffolding hasn’t always been such a DIY affair. In fact, a couple of now out-of-print books dedicate whole sections to listing everyday idioms and colloquialisms. Not bad for the days before ‘communicative’ approaches became the norm!

For instance, the 1984 edition of Hugo’s Greek in Three Months was a revelation. The author not only devotes several pages to conversational turns of phrase, but a whole chapter on sayings and aphorisms! Granted, the latter are a bit more niche, and requires a bit of picking and choosing. And, casting a glance down both lists, they’re a bit of a random potpourri. But it’s a lot more of a social language reference than we’re used to in many modern guides.

A page from Hugo's Greek in Three Months (1984) listing some useful social fillers.

A page from Hugo’s Greek in Three Months (1984) listing some useful social fillers.

Greek in Three Months isn’t alone in throwing in these nice colloquial surprises. A much older book in terms of first editions, Teach Yourself Icelandic, includes pages and pages of useful colloquial phrases. Similarly, they seem a bit haphazardly thrown together at first sight. But as a collection of everyday language, they’re a brilliant starting point for creating your own crib sheet of favourites.

A page from Teach Yourself Icelandic (1986) listing idioms and colloquial phrases - great social glue for your conversations.

A page from Teach Yourself Icelandic (1986) listing idioms and colloquial phrases – great social glue for your conversations.

Nothing New Under The Sun

If anything, these social bookending reference lists from the past show that that there’s really nothing new under the sun in language learning. We stand on the shoulders of the giants who went before us, rediscovering their linguistic adventures through our own eyes, and fashions – in learning as much as in clothes – come, go, and come again. Those past learners and educators continue to provide us with a rich source of discovery.

And maybe there’s some inspiration there for present-day course writers and book publishers, too. Teach Yourself, Routledge: how about a few ‘social filler crib sheet’ pages in your next editions?

A pile of second-hand language books, mostly 1980s Teach Yourself titles.

Second-hand Language Books : Practical Treasures For A Pittance

Brand-new learning resources can cost a fortune these days. But there’s another, cheaper and more nostalgia-piquing way: second-hand language books from the 80s. After all, aren’t the 80s cool again now?

My most recent time trip started a couple of weeks ago, reminiscing with my parents. The conversation wandered to G.W.Hurley’s, a little local bookshop and newsagent in Burnham-on-Sea, nestled in the High Street and still going after 100 years in business. As a youngster, I spent a lot of time in Burnham on family seaside holidays, and I credit my first fascination with languages to that very shop.

Budding Linguist’s Aladdin’s Cave

In G.W.Hurley’s, my nan and uncle would unleash young Rich, not yet in secondary school, for many happy hours. It was like an Aladdin’s cave for a curious mind. There, in the tiny language section – maybe two shelves at most – were these pocket-sized, blue-covered Teach Yourself books that offered windows into other worlds. Other 80s kids will know what I’m talking about – those uniform covers that bound those contemporary TY editions series together. French, German, Spanish, and more… All the subjects I’d heard the big kids studied when they went to secondary school.

Well, sifting through those happy browsing memories got me digging through some old storage boxes in the present day. I knew I still had at least a couple of those cerulean gems lying around. Sure enough, after some rummaging, Teach Yourself Finnish and Teach Yourself Maltese saw the light of day again, pristine and proudly cared for, but forgotten for some years. I’d had others formerly, too, since either passed on to friends or family, or donated to charity shops. But I had a thought:

How cool would it be to recreate a bit of those 80s language bookshelf feels?

Second-hand Language Books, 3, 2… 1!

First, I set to looking in the most obvious place: the second-hand bookshops of Edinburgh. The city is a goldmine for used books, and it seemed rude not to take advantage. Sure enough, the search threw up plenty of the bonnie blue paperbacks, some more elusive than others. You’ll not struggle to source the cyan volumes of Teach Yourself French, German, Italian or Spanish at all. It’s quirkier titles like Teach Yourself Serbo-Croat (which isn’t even really a thing any more…) and Teach Yourself Swahili that are trickier (and more expensive) to hunt down.

So, onto wider territory, and Amazon Marketplace, eBay and AbeBooks. I couldn’t believe my luck: the sites are replete with second-hand language books from multiple bulk sellers, many with free postage. And, even better:

Many are available, in great condition, for less than a couple of pounds each!

Needless to say, I started racking them up. I began with some of the familiar titles, including those I’d given away years ago. Teach Yourself Everyday Spanish, Teach Yourself Italian, Teach Yourself Modern Greek. But then, as I searched, I started coming across other lovely, nostalgic gems that I used to have and love: the Hugo In Three Months books, the old Routledge Colloquial books with the white covers, the Cassell’s Colloquial handbooks. I started adding in languages that I never studied, or want to study in the future, or have just a passing interest in. In other words, I found myself recreating the whole bookshop! And friends, it is becoming addictive. Somewhere in the process I seem to have become a book collector.

Four 1980s editions of Teach Yourself language books.

Into the blue…

Practically Speaking

In any case, as they arrived, and I excitedly leafed through them, I realised what gems they all are, especially considering the minuscule price. It turns out that the timeframe that I chose for purely nostalgic reasons – the Eighties – is a lucky pick. Older than that, and courses can be a bit too chalk ‘n’ talk for many. In other words, the style is that classical, old-fashioned, rigid presentation-plus-reproduction model. Now, I don’t mind this at all myself – in fact, I learnt a whole load of Polish that way – but it doesn’t always foster the most practical, real-world skills!

On the other hand, in the 80s, we see the focus in language learning beginning to shift to a more communicative approach. In response, TY had already started to rewrite whole sections of their language catalogue. We begin to see printed dialogues, for a start, with a focus on colloquial language. And that is generally much better suited to today’s polyglot goals. The second-hand language books of my childhood era started to treat language as a living, dynamic thing, rather that very meta way of the past of knowing about a language.

A page from the 1980s edition of Teach Yourself Italian.

No longer all chalk ‘n’ talk – the 1980s swing towards communicative language learning is reflected in more colloquial dialogues like this one in Teach Yourself Italian (1985).

It’s also interesting what was included in earlier volumes but dropped in rewrites. Hugo’s Greek in Three Months from the early 80s, for example, has an incredibly useful section on Greek idioms and common turns of phrase. I’ve never seen anything like it in later manuals, and it’s already proving handy in my iTalki conversation lessons.

A page from the 1980s edition of "Hugo's Greek in Three Months", entitled "Idiomatic Expressions".

The brilliantly useful ‘Idiomatic Expressions’ section of the early 80s “Hugo’s Greek in Three Months”.

Lastly (and leastly…) some of those little blue beauties are gorgeously pocket-sized paperbacks. While they won’t quite fit into the average pocket, they do seem to be generally more compact and portable than modern tomes. They’re ideal for stashing in a bag for trips and reading on the move.

All that, and for less than two quid a pop. Language learning on a budget!

All Paths Lead to Rome (and Madrid, and Berlin, and…)

In short, a nostalgia trip led me to rediscover some truly useful resources hiding in the past. First and foremost, these titles were personally meaningful, even beautiful, for the thoughts and feelings they stir up. But for pedagogically sound materials at an amazingly low price, you could do a lot worse than go hunting in the 80s. Those windows onto target languages and cultures may have dated a little, but the learning is sound.

I have more on the way… and browsing for them has become my latest linguistic compulsion!

Second hand language books.

A teddy sitting on a sofa with headphones on. Possibly listening to Audible. Image by MediaLab on FreeImages.com.

An Audible Plus Language Learning Stash

I had a nice surprise this week, although it took me a while to finally notice it. Audible subscribers have access to a whole load of material for free as part of the Audible Plus catalogue. And that includes a nice little stash of language learning resources!

I’ve sung the praises of Audible as a study buddy before, and not just for language learning. Audiobooks really helped me to smash an Old Norse literature assignment last term.

There’s naturally plenty of language learning proper on there, too. In fact, the bulk of the free-access Audible Plus material comes from the team at Innovative Language Learning, which you may well know from top-charting podcasts like GermanPod101. They were amongst the first really big language learning podcasts, and for that they’ll always have a special place in our hearts!

I Got The (Word) Power!

The highlight of their selection has to be the Word Power series, including titles in Chinese, Spanish and Russian, amongst others. The Word Power resources are like speaking frequency dictionaries, presenting common words in isolation, then in a phrase for context. While not the most interactive resources, they can form the basis of your own active techniques, including DIY mass sentence drilling. They’re also chunked into short-ish chapters, so you can spend a few, targeted minutes a day with them very easily.

Another huge plus point is that most of these series are available in a lovely, wide range of languages. I found materials in all the likely mainstream culprits like French, German and Spanish. But there is also a pleasing cache of lesser-spotted offerings like Greek, Hindi and Persian.

Other Audible Goodies

Of course, it’s only a fraction of Audible’s catalogue that is open for free access. The plus selection doesn’t include, for example, premium titles like Olly Richards’ brilliant easy readers series. On the other hand, that’s what subscribers’ monthly credits are for. I’ve very happily used a couple of mine on those (namely, Icelandic and Norwegian!).

Saying that, there are lots of other free titles, which, if not strictly language learning resources, are only a side-step away. This goes particularly for those with an interest in the countries and cultures of their target languages. Returning to Iceland, for example, Jackson Crawford’s Saga of the Volsungs – translated and narrated by the internet’s favourite silver-tongued Old Norse expert – caught my eye.

In short, it’s definitely worth checking out what’s available on Audible Plus. Even though a lot of premium content will still cost you credits or cash, there’s a treasure of freebies waiting to be trawled through.

Greek flag. The Flag of Greece. Photo by Michael Faes, FreeImages.com

Greek Rules Rule! Understanding Adjective Pairs

Finding fluency in a foreign language is often a question of spotting heuristics – patterns, tricks and rules of thumb that help map out the shape of the language in your mind. They can help you mark the boundaries that most often lead to mix-ups and common ‘gotcha’ errors as a non-native speaker. Recently, I spied one of these in Greek, and it’s already helping me to avoid errors.

The tricky feature in question is the existence of Greek adjectives derived from the same root, but with subtly different meanings. They come in pairs ending in -ικός and -μένος, and you can get a feel for the pattern in the following examples:

κουραστικός tiring κουρασμένος tired
αγχωτικός stressful αγχωμένος stressed
ενοχλητικός annoying ενοχλημένος annoyed

For a while, I would tend to unthinkingly say one when I meant the other. It led to some classic Greek comedy moments: “I’m annoying” instead of “I’m annoyed” and such like!

Greek Columns

But by taking a moment to analyse how meaning matches up with form in those two columns, the rule bubbles to the surface. Grammatically speaking, the second of each pair here are passive past participles. They express the state a person is in when X has been done to them. In these cases, that equates to made tired, made anxious, made annoyed. Now, more often than not, these marry up with past participles in English (like tired or annoyed). In Greek, it’s -μένος that indicates that in the adjectival form.

By contrast, the first column adjectives relate more to the inherent properties of the person, thing or situation. That is, the potential effect on something else – the ability to cause to be tired, anxious or annoyed. English tends to form these in a variety of ways: present participles of active verbs like tiring or annoying, suffix formations like stressful, or often, clumsier adjectival / participial phrases like anxiety-inducing. However, in Greek, you’ll often get a simple -ικός, turning an active verbal root into an adjective.

So, it all boils down to one easy rule in Greek. Talking about how it caused you to feel? Then it’s -μένος. Talking about what it does to you? Then it will be the –ικός part of the equation.

It’s a neat example, and a good illustration of how taking the time to pattern-spot can sort out some real zingers in your language learning head. Of course, we all do this automatically and below the level of our awareness most of the time. But with those sticky mistakes, it never hurts to join up the dots out loud!

New book, new language - a pile of Assimil "ohne Mühe" editions.

New Book, New Language

What comes first? The language – or the language book?

It’s a real chicken-and-egg question if you love language book shopping. Some editions just look so irresistibly shiny, that you long to have them on your shelf – regardless of whether the language fits your polyglot plan or not.

So it is with the Assimil editions and me at the moment. The uniform white and blue cover format sparks off the collector in me, and I end up wanting them all. That’s even though I have them in most of my active languages already. It was the same old story with the Teach Yourself Tutor books. I liked those so much that I bagged myself a couple in languages I don’t even study (yet). Incorrigible!

So, it was a predictable but special treat to buy myself an Assimil in a new language recently. Welcome to the shelf, Croatian!

Assimil's Kroatisch ohne Mühe

New Kid on the Desk : Assimil’s Kroatisch ohne Mühe

Language book whys and wherefores

First off, why Assimil, besides the satisfaction of building up that delft-like blue-and-white book collection?

Well, I’m in good company. Language learning legend Luca Lampariello has given Assimil textbooks the thumbs up, for a start. For all sorts of approaches, including his bidirectional translation technique, Assimil courses contain ideal, self-contained, high-frequency vocab dialogues to work with. Several languages are only available in German or French as the base language, fulfilling my love of non-native language course guides. And more practically speaking, they’re also really compact to carry around in your bag or rucksack.

Secondly, another language? Really?

Before you chide me for taking on too much, I should explain that I’m not about to dive headfirst into Croatian as a full-on language project. Instead, it’s purely practical. I’m learning for a trip, albeit a trip that was meant to take place this September, and has now been postponed to 2022 (thanks, Covid). I’m off to the Croatian coast with friends, and it’s a huge part of my personal ethos to learn at least a bit of the language everywhere I go. My goal? Maybe five or ten minutes a day until the trip.

A Eurovision head start

I’m not starting ab initio, of course. A lifetime of fawning over Eurovisions of old makes sure of that. Yes, my Croatian is already a 50-ish word pot pourri of song titles and lyrics from the early 60s onwards. Want me to talk about ljubav? I’m your man. Want to dance, Croatian-style? Ja sam za ples, too! Want to learn yet another language with me? Hajde da ludujemo! (You just knew I’d work Eurovision into this somehow, eh?)

Of course, I’ve said all this “it’s nothing serious” before, many, many times over. Maybe what I intend as a happy friendship could well blossom into ljubav in the end. Well, my heart and mind are open. Croatian, I am ready!

The number one on a post. Image by Ulrik De Wachter, freeimages.com

Basics Fatigue : Conquer Chapter One Boredom and Fill Those Gaps

Do you ever get ‘basics fatigue’? No, not ‘basic fatigues’ (although you can do your language learning in military clothing if you so wish). Basics fatigue is when you know you should go back to basics to fill in foundational gaps in your language knowledge. The problem is, you have no motivation to do so as you feel you should be beyond that level already and the prospect is, well, just dull.

I’ve been experiencing this with Polish a lot lately. The culprit is largely unsystematic and haphazard learning in the beginning – an advert for planning your learning if ever there was one. In any case, I’ve suspected for ages that I’d benefit from getting reacquainted with the first few chapters of Colloquial Polish. But the fact that I probably know 75% of the material in those early chapters already is really off-putting.

Unless I get over it, though, that stubborn, motivation-resistant 25% will keep tripping me up again and again.

So how to conquer basics fatigue?

Seek Novelty

The most obvious way to increase interest is to look for novelty. That is to say, seek out new courses rather than your old books. For instance, in some form or other, Teach Yourself Polish and Colloquial Polish have been lying on my shelves for years. For a change, I gave the home-grown Krok po kroku a look. It worked a treat; it’s a big, glossy, bold and colourful title that really pimped up my basics game.

In fact, there’s the obvious added benefit to sourcing these kinds of resources from a pure target language approach. Reading through materials completely in Polish, including all instructions and explanations, added enough of an extra challenge to keep my focus for longer than books teaching through English.

Widen the Net

Similarly, language guides that teach the basics via the medium of another language – neither your native or target one – can mix things up a bit.

In my case, I was lucky enough to have one close to hand already. The Polish edition of Langenscheidts Praktisches Lehrbuch had languished, forgotten on my shelf, shamefully untouched for a few years. Then, I rediscovered it. Seeing basic Polish through the lens of my German gave me a whole new perspective on its structure. It joined up the dots between my languages, and gave me a stronger linkage between two of my foreign languages without the need for my native language as support. And what a great, solid course it is too, by the way.

Originally, I picked it up on a trip to Germany in the early noughties, transporting it proudly home as part of my language learning bookshop swag (including, if I remember rightly, a German-Estonian dictionary for reasons that were probably clear at the time). I love this kind of thing, of course – learning materials in a language other than your native one. 

Langenscheidt's Polish course - great for the basics if you already have German.

Langenscheidt’s Polish course – great for the basics if you already have German.

Langenscheidt's Polish course - sample page

My old Langenscheidt handbook seems to have been long since replaced by its successor, Polnisch mit System, if you want to give something similar a go. Failing that, Polnisch ohne Mühe is a good option for Polish learners with decent German.

Incidentally, I also recently came across Polisch-Deutsch für die Pflege zu Hause. The book is intended for Polish heath care workers in German-speaking countries, but has some great bilingual dialogues and vocabulary lists that cover the basics in a fresh and interesting new context (at least for me!).

A Practical, Active Approach

If you regularly take one-to-one language learning lessons on platforms like iTalki, there is a very practical way you can retread the basics. Namely, a lot of the social glue of everyday conversation finds itself in those first few chapters. Greetings, niceties, friendly goodbyes – the basics of language learning – they’re all in there. And when it’s those things that are missing, conversation can grind to an unnatural halt. It can take some very focused intervention to put that right.

Instead, what about attacking those chapters methodically, creating a speaking scaffold list of phrases from them? This can help structure iTalki lessons, for example, with a better defined beginning, middle and end. Using book sections to create your own resources beats a purely passive review of them.

Teach the Basics

If all else fails, and those basics really aren’t inspiring you, then you could always try teaching them to someone else. It’s often said that to teach something is to really get to know it. Are there any other budding polyglots around you? Use those foundational chapters to put together a mini lesson for them.

Willing participants can come from the most unlikely sources. My mum recently approached me, in fact; as an NHS vaccine jabber, she was meeting more and more Polish people daily, and wanted to learn a few basic phrases. Out came the books. Suddenly, all those Chapter Ones were a lot more fun.

How do you overcome basics fatigue? Do you have any tricks for reinvigorating foundation material for revision? Let us know in the comments!