The best cure for digital fatigue - paper and pen. Image from freeimages.com.

Digital fatigue in language learning: blending old school for a perfect mix

I’ve always been a big champion of digital platforms for language learning. It’s my passion – and my job. So it’s with perhaps with some sense of defeat that I admit to suffering from a bit of digital fatigue of late.

Maybe I’ve been overdoing it on Duolingo? Or perhaps the multilingual Anki decks have been a bit overwhelming. Either way, I felt the need to seek a bit of real-world, analogue solace this week.

Perhaps you’ve felt it too. That cloudy, foggy-headed feeling when you realise you’ve been idly staring at a screen for too long without actually achieving much. You wouldn’t be alone, given that 41% of respondents in one recent study report that same weariness with tech.

There is something energy-sapping about the sheer passivity of digital device usage and its hypnotic draw. For all the great things digital tools offer language learners, they are beasts that need control – or to risk being controlled by. It is no surprise that the great minds behind tech giants raised their children completely tech-free.

As much as I love the idea of adopting a wholly paperless routine, there was nothing for it. I had to prescribe myself a bit of old school.

Going old school

There is little else more old school in language learning than the trusty text book. Getting caught up in online learning means you can often miss developments and new releases in the book world, and there are some fantastic recent additions to the language shelf to give your eyes some screen-rest.

Teach Yourself books, for example, have played a winner with their recent Tutor series. Thoroughly offline – there aren’t even any digital versions at this point – they are modern, up-to-date grammar primers for A2-B2 level, packed with relevant examples and useful drills. I must admit to becoming a little addicted to them: four and counting!

Books are, of course, a joy. Being a bibliophile is almost part and parcel of being a language lover, so chances are you already have a wealth of material sitting on the shelf without rushing out to buy more.

Unless you have an e-reader with some novel e-ink features for a natural feel, spending time with physical tomes is the perfect way to beat digital fatigue and reconnect with offline learning. (Just don’t spend too long online ordering them – or even better, visit your local bookshop!)

You can work with these paper resources while still preserving the offline benefits. One combination approach I talked about recently was forward loading vocabulary from your books to your digital vocabulary tools. That two-track blend keeps you in those paper pages while leveraging the power of the app, too.

But what when it comes to written work?

Getting touchy-feely with words

Working a lot on my laptop, I’m used to using Evernote for language learning notes and other tasks. It’s simple, cloud-based and has lots of extra features like tagging (a lifeline if you make reams and reams of notes like I do).

That said, even amazing tools like this contribute to soul-sapping digital fatigue after a while. And when electronic note-taking is too much, there’s an obvious solution: good old pen and paper.

Physical writing, be it vocabulary lists, writing exercises or whatever other language tasks you choose, has a kinaesthetic, touchy-feely element that tapping on a device simply lacks. There is a level of preparation and care involved that makes it a wholly more active way to work with words.

Doing something physical with your material helps increase both your level of involvement and pride in it, both excellent get-it-to-stick tricks. And that’s not to mention the fun of enjoying lots of lovely stationery, too!

Old-school but environment-kind

Even still, nothing is perfect. Storage, paper waste, the general accumulation of stuff – the digital world promised us an escape from these downsides. Fortunately, there are ways to blend offline and online approaches so we get the best of both worlds.

An environmentally-friendly way to chug through reams of paper is simply to snap your handwritten notes into an app like Evernote or Scanner Pro, then recycle the originals responsibly.

Lately, though, there’s been a great deal of buzz around reusable notebooks on social media. Rocketbook and Infinitebook are leading the way for a new breed of paper: the kind you write on again, and again… and again.

Not only are they refreshed via a number of often novel methods (microwaving being the most out-there), but they contain crossover features that help them interface seamlessly with the digital world. Some pages, for example, contain checkboxes for the cloud platform of choice for storage (Dropbox, Google Drive and so on). Snap your notes with the dedicated app, and they will whizz across to their destination, safe and sound and without any bother.

Though affordable, these are something of a medium investment, costing more than even the average language text book. On the other hand, you may well save a fortune on traditional pads in the long run.

Fancy a cheaper option to Rocketbook and other pricey (but equally impressive) options? A mini-whiteboard can give you a place to scribble, scan and scrub at a fraction of the price.

 

Digital dream: still alive but reimagined

So, as a digital renaissance kid truly sold on the idea of a paperless future, maybe I am a little disillusioned at the reality. The idea of carrying my whole world – educational and otherwise – around on a 9″ tablet is looking a little jaded. But a blended approach really does save the day, pulling together the best of both worlds.

Ultimately, variety is the order of the day to keep language learning fresh. And if you only stick to digital platforms, you miss out on the wealth of resources the offline world has to offer.

Don’t feel defeat when digital fatigue sets in, like I did. Rediscover the offline to reignite your joy of learning. Then beat app anxiety without ditching it completely by blending your worlds!

Wading into the jungle of a new language course. Image from freeimages.com

Recon in the course book jungle: forward loading vocab to breeze through books

You know the feeling. A shiny new course book, fresh from the bookshop. All that potential, just sitting there, between the covers. There’s a joy and anticipation at the sight of a language learning book that only linguaphiles can know.

But where to start?

Sometimes, wading into the jungle, simply plodding straight through from page one, is harder than we would like. Somehow it can all feel a little… passive.

But there is a better way. Something that has recently proven especially effective for me and my course books is forward loading vocabulary. It’s an explorative, preliminary approach that can really increase what we get out of traditional courses like the Teach Yourself and Colloquial series. It turns passive plodding into active consumption of material.

So what is it all about?

Book recon

Don’t worry – there is no need to put off opening those pages immediately. Forward loading vocabulary is all about diving into your nice, new book straight away.

But that first dive is not to work methodically, and linearly, through the texts and language exercises. Instead, you initially steam through, chapter by chapter, combing the word lists, grammar explanations and dialogues to build your own vocabulary repository first.

Think of it as a language book recon mission. You are heading out on an expedition through the material to see what the terrain is like, and make your own map before you set off for real.

And how do you make that map? Using the vocabulary building tools of your choice, with a little bit of cross-referencing from dictionary sites and similar materials.

Preloading vocabulary from the first chapters of the Teach Yourself Finnish course in Anki

Preloading vocabulary from the first chapters of the Teach Yourself Finnish course in Anki

As for the level of granularity you choose – whether just key words or every lexeme, full phrases or the dictionary forms of individual items, for example – that is up to you. Anything you do counts as great prep for starting the book proper, so every bit of vocab mining helps.

I used the technique preparing for a recent language learning mini-break to Finland. Taking Teach Yourself Finnish (now Complete Finnish) as the key course, I first scoured the initial chapters for vocabulary. I collected this all in Anki, cross-referencing with Wiktionary to check spelling and add information (like infinitive forms, plurals and such like) as I went. To be particularly thorough, I even included the target language instructions, like harjoitellaan (“let’s practise”). Nothing is without value – it’s all extra word power.

With that done, I had primed myself for the material before I even started. Not only that, but I had created an interactive, daily vocab activity drill regime to run alongside the course material. I was ready to start Teach Yourself Finnish proper!

The benefits of preloading course vocab

As already mentioned, the obvious benefit of forward loading is priming, specifically repetition priming.  This cursory familiarity with course material is a kind of pre-learning, and sets the stage for greater recall even before you even start in earnest.

Our brains pick up much more than we might realise from a first look. Having worked through all those words initially means that connections form – and deep learning occurs – much more readily the second time around.

Own that vocab

That’s not to mention the boost to your sense of ownership over that learning material. Working carefully and creatively with vocabulary is a fantastic way simply to care more about it. And caring more is a sure route to greater motivation. Tools like Anki allow for all sorts of customisations that help make those decks your own.

Managed, two-track learning

Depending on the vocab tools you use, you can benefit from some solid learning science, too. Anki, for example, drip-feeds flash cards to the user at intervals based on an optimised formula.

In my Finnish experiment, I found that Anki’s 10-a-day standard pace matched quite well the speed at which a learner would usually progress through a text book. That makes for a complimentary, tandem vocab learning track to go alongside your course work.

Savvy learning

Creating a separate glossary also makes you a savvy learner. You can keep tabs on exactly the kind of words and phrases you are covering in the language. Not only that: you can even give a rough guesstimate on how much you know of that language, in much the same way as Duolingo measures progress in its use of the term ‘lexemes’ (these units are exposed on the Duome site, for example).

Anki, for example, will report the number of items in your decks via the Browse tab. If you are ever frustrated by woolly questions like “how well do you know language X?”, then an exact word count can be a satisfying (if not particularly practical) answer!

Sharing is caring

Finally, building custom word lists gives you the opportunity to share your hard work with others in the community. Although using ready-made lists won’t give them the benefit of all that sense of ownership, it might be the helping hand they need to get started in Finnish / Hindi / Yoruba. Here is my collected vocabulary from Teach Yourself Finnish Chapters 1-3, handily collated in a public Quizlet list.

Forward loading is one way of working actively with your course book rather than just passively consuming it. It gets you started straight away, gives you a real sense of progress, and sets you up to breeze through the course book when you tackle it in earnest. Do a bit of vocab recon before you start wading through the jungle, and give forward loading a try!

A computer screen (image from freeimages.com)

Vocabulary cross-platforming : make your DIY language learning data work harder

A major feature of language learning in the digital world is the abundance of tools for building and testing your own vocabulary banks. Anki, Quizlet, Educandy, StudyBlue, Cram… There are all sorts of platforms for collecting and drilling the words and phrases you study. And pretty much all of them have a free tier, making these tools more accessible than ever.

But what most of these platforms share is an often overlooked feature that adds a little bit of power to your wordbank building. It is the facility to export and import vocabulary data in a standardised, cross-platform format.

The biggest benefit of this is the ability to create your word lists just once, then work with them on multiple sites or apps. So why is that so useful?

Variety in learning

For one thing, variety is particularly important for maintaining a healthy learning regime. Taking multiple approaches avoids tying your new knowledge to one particular setting, and falling foul of the context effect. When you make use of several testing platforms, you discourage the brain from binding words and phrases to unrelated cues like layout, colours, font, and even the environment you regularly use the app in.

Not only that: using the same platform all the time can just get dull. And if there is one demotivator you need to avoid, it is boredom. Mix it up and keep it fresh!

Finding perfection in the mix

No platform is perfect. Some do things better than others. Others do things that are unique and not offered elsewhere. Sticking to one single tool for your vocabulary practice is certainly not making the most of the wealth of opportunity on offer.

As an example, Quizlet and Cram offer a couple of fun, arcade-style games. These make a nice change from the familiar, text-based drills of many apps. Additionally, Quizlet has a clean, no-nonsense test activity, which combines four types of activity across twenty random items in your list. It’s snappy and random enough to stretch you with longer vocabulary lists. And then again, none of them really beats the interval-based flashcard testing of Anki.

No single app has it all – ensure that you get it all by cross-platforming.

Arcade-style vocabulary drilling with Quizlet's Gravity

Arcade-style vocabulary drilling
with Quizlet’s Gravity game

Ownership of vocabulary

I’m a big fan of creating a sense of ownership over your own vocabulary to increase motivation. Those words and phrases are a map of your own, very personal journey through the language. Be proud of them! Careful curation of a master list for use across sites can help foster that sense of pride.

Exporting your data from services that you use puts it in your hands. You can use it elsewhere, or even alter it directly if you like – it is no longer bound to a third-party service.

Getting at your data

Of course, you actually need to get at your data to enjoy all of this.

The first step is to locate the import / export features of your tool of choice. In Anki, for example, the relevant options are in the File menu. In Quizlet, you will find export in the settings menu for each of your question lists; import options, however, appear when you go to create a new list. If in doubt, search for import / export on the FAQ or help pages of your chosen service.

Once located, the standard format you need may be labelled differently from app to app. Generally, comma-separated, plain text values are the most compatible across platforms. In Anki, this equates to selecting Notes in Plain Text (*.txt). To maximise compatibility further, uncheck any extra options, such as tags or media references in the Anki example blow.

Exporting vocabulary from Anki

Exporting vocabulary from Anki

Exporting vocabulary from Quizlet

Exporting vocabulary from Quizlet

The text-only file created should contain all your vocabulary data, but be simple and stripped down enough to import into most sites. Comma-separated files can even be opened and edited in spreadsheet software like Excel and Sheets.

As a handy side-effect, they also double as emergency backups of your data if you store them safely elsewhere. Accidentally deleted your list? Or has the site you were using disappeared? No problem. You have your vocabulary safely squirreled away.

Choose your master

It is also crucial to choose your master. Don’t fret – your personal autonomy is safe! It is a master app or platform that you need to decide on.

Select a single platform that you use as your main repository – ideally the one you are most comfortable list-building with. You can then export from that into other services. This keeps things simple: any new vocabulary will always go into your master list, and you will avoid ending up with discrepancies across platforms.

I use Anki as my master list, chiefly since it allows for tagging entries with keywords, making your data queryable. For example, it is a cinch to run off sublists of vocabulary based on topic tags for various purposes. Anki’s Browse window gives easy access to these quite powerful list management features, and it operates very much like a database. Anki is also extensible with modules that enable greater multimedia control, such as this add-on for interfacing with other language learning web services to enhance your notes.

Browsing Polish vocabulary in the Anki desktop app.

Browsing Polish vocabulary in the Anki desktop app.

That said, you can even use spreadsheet software to manage your master list as mentioned above. Administering your vocabulary in a ‘raw’ format like this can increase your sense of ownership over it, too.

Don’t find yourself limited to a single vocabulary management platform. Own your data and make it work!

Are you making free resources work for you? Get the most of out of that wealth of apps on offer. Cross-platform your vocabulary!

An owl. Probably not the Duolingo one, but I'm sure they're friends. (Image from freeimages.com)

Building linguistic muscle memory with Duolingo

I achieved not quite a lifelong dream this week. Let’s call it a months-long dream. I finally reached level 25 in German on Duolingo!

When the moment of glory came, it was more with a fizzle than with fireworks. As the XP points ticked over, the ‘points to next’ level disappeared, a simple XP counter in its place. I won’t pretend I wasn’t quite chuffed secretly, though.

But hang on! Can’t I already speak German? As my strongest foreign language, what was I doing thrashing through levels and levels of a beginner to intermediate course? Of course, besides the gamified pride of having that shiny 25 next to the language on my Duolingo profile.

Well, fluency is never a done deal. Even our strongest languages need maintenance work to keep them in shape. And what started as a curious exploration of Duolingo’s German course showed me how useful it can be to use lower-level learner drill tools to reinforce your skills as a fluent speaker. Convinced of the benefits, I’m now using it to blitz Norwegian, another of my more confident languages.

So why is Duolingo so useful?

A Duolingo leaderboard

A Duolingo leaderboard

Muscle memory

Muscle memory, or motor learning, is the process by which certain skills become automatic and unthinking through repetition. You know the kind of thing: playing scales on a piano, using a computer keyboard, operating the controls of a car. They are tasks that we perform so often that they just happen on some level below consciousness.

Proficient language use has a component of this, too. As we become more and more familiar with the patterns of a language, we form grammatically sound phrases ever more automatically. After years of learning French, German or Spanish, you no longer have to think about gendered articles, for example. At some point you just get it.

The key routes to achieving this language ‘muscle memory’ are exposure and repetition. And Duolingo exercises have that by the truckload. That green owl has prepared hundreds and hundreds of sentences, each selected as an example of idiomatic, grammatically correct usage.

Automating those little details

The upshot of this is that you can work on automating those annoying little details that always trip you up, even in your strong languages. For example,  learning phrases to express date and time are a pet hate of mine as a learner. When speaking quickly, I am still tempted to use the equivalent of the English preposition, which is often not the same in the target language.

Take Norwegian as an example. To express duration where English uses ‘for’, the language uses i (in), such as ‘i fem uker’ (for five weeks). Even after years of working on my Norwegian, it can be hard to stifle that anglophone twitch to use ‘for’ instead of ‘i’.

Cue Duolingo’s Time topic. After bashing out exercise after exercise containing solid Norwegian time phrases, they are starting to come more naturally now. Bad habits start to break down; the brain is getting trained.

It is not just the brain, either. After typing thousands of characters of target language, the fingers start to instinctively know how to form the special characters on the keyboard. No more clumsy fiddling for å, ø or any of their kin!

Duolingo and the lost details

Fluency is not the summit of a perfectly formed mountain. It is easy to sit proudly atop your language mastery and assume that you simply have it covered. Especially the basics.

Hold your horses! Duolingo surprised me by throwing up some shockers that I had forgotten over the years. The gender of Euro and Cent in German (both der, by the way). The correct word for employ or hire (einstellen, not anstellen as I’d been assuming for years). They’re little things, and they would barely impede comprehension. But those lost details make the difference between sounding like a learner and sounding like someone who has really got a grip on the language.

Duolingo has even being training the sloppiness out of my language habits. Learning Norwegian as a German speaker can be incredibly handy, since the languages are fairly close. However, assuming similarity can result in mistakes. Using Duolingo on both of them has thrown up some surprising discrepancies in the gender of cognates between the two languages. Just look at these:

🇳🇴 🇩🇪
cinema kinoen masculine das Kino neuter
keyboard tastaturet neuter die Tastatur feminine
library biblioteket neuter die Bibliothek feminine
mind sinnet neuter der Sinn masculine
sugar sukkeret neuter der Zucker masculine

Where I would previously assume the Norwegian gender was identical to the German, I now know better. Duolingo exercises gave me a systematic arena to find that out. Without it, it might have taken me an age to come across them by chance. No more blindly relying on German for my Norwegian details!

Need for speed…

Many of Duolingo’s activities are translation-based. And a key benefit of this for already proficient linguists is the development of lightning-speed gist translation.

Understanding gist, or the general essence, of a sentence quickly is a key skill for operating seamlessly in a foreign language. Life moves quickly, and we must often act swiftly to keep pace. By adding a timed element to these exercises in its random test feature, Duolingo encourages learners to understand quickly. And true enough, after some time using the platform, you will find yourself getting faster and faster on the keyboard.

Challenge yourself to a few random quizzes (via the dumbbell icon in the app). See how quickly you can translate via a glance at the native language prompt or single listen to the spoken phrase, and work on extending that gist brain. Dictation exercises are also excellent for training you ear to catch things quickly, especially in languages with elision, where words can seem to blur into one another.

Interestingly, translation drilling is a feature of the platform that may well be more useful to language maintainers than learners. Although mass sentence approaches can be incredibly useful for increasing your exposure, pure translation is probably not most efficient sole learning method. The threshold of conversational fluency might be just the right time to jump into Duolingo’s testing tool.

…but recognising road bumps

Travelling the same paths over and over again is a good opportunity to spot where there are potholes. And through regular muscle memory training on Duolingo, you soon find out what your own weaknesses are.

A major lesson for me relates to what psychologist Daniel Kahnemann has called fast and slow thinking. These relate to the two tracks of thought processing humans are hypothesised to have. The first is a snappy, gut-instinct decision making brain based on heuristics or patterns. Its complement is a more careful, deliberating one.

When you start speed translating for gist training, you may be tempted to jump the gun and answer too quickly at first. Perhaps a similar, but slightly different sentence appeared on the screen two minutes ago. Your fast-thinking, pattern-spotting brain might catch only the similar part, remember the answer to the previous sentence, and enter that instead of checking the whole thing. At first, this would happen frequently with me – oops.

With plenty of practice, though, you can train your brain to engage its more deliberated mode whilst still maintaining speed. In essence, it is a lesson in “don’t assume anything”, and a good counterbalance to the speed translation kick.

Learning is a journey, not an outcome

It is tempting to see learning as something with an endpoint. But a commitment to a language involves regular maintenance and audits, which can be hard to put into play if you live outside your target countries.

There may be a hint of polyglot snobbery around using beginner to intermediate tools like Duolingo. But the opportunity these offer for stocktaking and strengthening existing pathways is too good to miss. And sometimes, going back to basics can just be fun, especially when it is gamified!

Already have a strong language amongst the Duolingo courses? Join the XP chase, schedule a daily drill, and see what levelling up can do for you.

A stash of tourist leaflets and guides in various foreign languages.

Lovely Leaflets: Making the most of foreign language tourist ephemera

What have I been doing this week? Well, apart from obsessing over topping Duolingo’s new global leaderboards? Mostly, I’ve been hacking my way through reams of foreign language leaflets and tourist material I’ve amassed over the past few months of travel.

Despite a fixation with order and decluttering, I have to  admit that I let the piles of paper mount up. When faced with racks of foreign language material on holiday, my eyes light up. I can’t help but feast on the freebies. From talking to fellow polyglots, I am certainly not alone.

So how can we feed our fascination, but ensure we make the most of these fun, free resources?

Scrapbooking is your space-saving friend

First things first: these things take up room!

“Kiitos” (thanks) on a grocery bag from a Helsinki supermarket. Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

A trip to Finland resulted in bags of extra material in Finnish and Swedish!

The fact is that few of us have room to store wads and wads of paper from a lifetime of travelling. We call this kind of material ephemera for a reason: it is not meant to hang around long.

As a teacher, I would store authentic materials like this to use in lessons. The physical resources actually had a use. Now, as a learner, my instinct might still be to hoard them, but most of the time they simply end up lying around. It is far too easy to forget about your stash of leaflets. My cache has often sat, forgotten, in a side pocket of my suitcase for weeks.

The good news: this is what digital scrapbooking was made for. I use digital scrapbooks to create snapshots of all sorts of cultural ephemera from trips. Leaflets fit the bill perfectly.

Scrapbooking tools

You can get started with any note-taking software or app. Create a document, snap your items, and annotate.  My tool of choice is the brilliant Evernote. But Microsoft OneNote is perhaps even better for the task, since you can position image elements more freely on each page. Most importantly, both platforms are free to use at entry level.

Alternatively, document scanning apps can capture your material and turn it into PDFs. I use Scanner Pro on iOS, but there are many alternatives across platforms, including free apps like Adobe Scan. Most of these apps will also hook up to online drives like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive, making sure your material is backed up safely.

Leaflets captured, you can safely offload the originals into the bin. But remember to recycle!

How to work with leaflets as learning resources?

To make our leaflet-foraging worthwhile, we need to actively use these resources. And the great thing about digitally storing your leaflets is that we can simply type your notes and workings straight into the same documents that contain the scans. Nice and tidy!

There are myriad activities and approaches for active consumption of the material. The trick is to be as creative as you can with them to eke out the most benefit. Here are a few simple exercises for starters:

Vocabulary mining

The simplest activity is simply mining the material for new words and phrases. If you are still at a more elementary stage of the language, focus on the titles and headings. At a more advanced stage, you can introduce grammar tasks such as highlighting all the verbs or other parts of speech. Interrogate that material for as much new knowledge as you can.

Translation

Try to produce an idiomatic, flowing translation of the material in your native language. Note where it is necessary to express the ideas quite differently from language to language. Are there phrases that are difficult to reproduce exactly in your own?

Play the interpreter

Imagine you are taking a group of friends or family to the attraction. Read or skim the material a section at a time. Then, put it down between each reading and interpret the gist out loud, from memory, in your native language. This is great practice for actually performing the task for real-life travel companions!

In your own words

A real test of language mastery is creative production. Can you say the same thing in several ways? Paraphrasing and summarising are fantastic leaflet drill activities for this skill. Read a section of material, then look away. Try, from memory, to reproduce the material in your own words. This can be spoken, written, or (ideally) both.

Local language for local leaflets

Remember, these are local leaflets for local people! Well, not quite. But be enthusiastically cautious about leaflets in languages other than the local one for that attraction. Most of the time, professional translators, who are native speakers, will have translated the documents. However, this is not always the case. We have all spotted errors in even the most careful of translations into our own languages.

As a rule, it is always safest to grab the guide in the actual language of the country you are visiting. That said, this never stopped me snaffling literature in German and Polish when visiting the Book of Kells in Dublin. And it shouldn’t curb your enthusiasm either! Just regard such material with a careful and critical eye.

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

These guidelines should help inject some purpose and organisation into your pursuit of lovely leaflets. Above all, just enjoy this excellent – and free! –  source of learning material without getting lost in sea of paper. Oh – and leave a few behind for everybody else, too!

How do you learn from the material you pick up on your travels? Do you have specific leaflet-learning ideas that help? Share them in the comments below!

Finnish in Finland : the Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki

Finnish in seven days? Express language projects and learning how to learn

How much of a new foreign language can we learn in just seven days? It’s a tempting question that captures our imagination and challenges our mettle as polyglots. And it’s one I set out to answer with Finnish, as I prepared for a whistle stop three-day visit to lovely Helsinki this week.

For practical purposes, my knowledge of Finnish was almost nothing as I approached the seven-days-and-counting mark to my trip.  But as enthusiastic, language-loving polyglots, we are never really starting from scratch. We have a full tank of pre-knowledge to get us started – not necessarily on those specific languages we set out to study, but more general techniques for learning languages. And, in many ways, taking on time-limited language projects like this is an excellent way to take stock of our wider language learning approaches.

I’ve started, so I’ll… Finnish

One caveat: I did have a little pre-knowledge of Finnish itself, but not much. My exposure to this wonderful language of fifteen grammatical cases (!) has been limited. I have a little more experience of Helsinki itself, and this was my third trip here.

My last Finnish sojourn was a two-week working holiday to Helsinki, covering the Eurovision Song Contest 2007 for the fansite esctoday.com (never one for conformity to the norm). Dazzled by the glitz of the event, I barely made it past the first chapter of Teach Yourself Finnish before the stage lights won my attention. Two weeks and barely a handful of words learnt… I had some catching up to do in order to live down that polyglot fail!

So, beyond hyvää päivää (good day), kiitos (thanks) and a clutch of Eurovision song titles, I could barely remember a thing. I still had that old, battered Teach Yourself book, which I dug out in readiness. How would I fare third time round in Finland?

Time management

First things first: we have to make time for last-minute learning. To this end, I have always been a fan of time management apps and digital techniques for organising our lives. I already use Evernote to plan my productivity week, so it was a simple case of devising a plan and adding it to my weekly list of tactics. Since I already had Teach Yourself Finnish, I decided to use this as my primary course material. I would blitz through a chapter a day in order to reach chapter seven by the day of my flight.

Of course, no recipe is perfect. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that fairly high expectation of myself, I could not quite manage to stick rigidly to the plan. In fact, I only just managed to break into chapter four before I was enjoying my Finnair blueberry juice. But just as important as your plan is the ability to treat it flexibly around life’s ebb and flow. And by tracking your language tasks using tools like Evernote, you can still achieve the satisfaction of seeing progress, even when the everyday gets in the way.

Material world

My book-based course was the bedrock, but not the only route I used to bolstering my Finnish. You see, there is a particularly helpful side-benefit of returning to languages previously attempted and ‘failed’. It opens the way to a realisation of how your learning approaches have become more creative and effective than the bare books many of us inevitably started with.

My own big win is a much more active consumption of new vocabulary compared to my early beginnings as a language learner. Now, as I work through material, I use a number of resources to work on the vocabulary and engage with it. Principally, I grow my own Anki decks of words and phrases to learn and practise from – a technique that really helps give a sense of ownership over the word lists. This one change by itself has made a huge difference in vocab retention compared to my previous, floundering attempts at Finnish.

Multimodal approach

What it boils down to is a much more multimodal approach to learning today. Where once the norm was a book (and accompanying audio tracks, if you forked out the extra cash), there are now multiple, parallel resources across the range of skills. Why settle for one route to knowledge, when we can take advantage of multiple streams at once? Especially when so much is now available online, including from national broadcasters like Finland’s YLE (attempting to read news headlines is a favourite language task of mine).

Crucially, working through information in a number of ways helps beat the context effect – the inflexibility of recall that results from seeing material in the same, single setting without variation. The multimodal approach makes for flexible language knowledge, better primed for the unpredictable. And so I proceeded, not just sticking to Anki, but importing my word lists into Quizlet and Educandy, practising my Finnish vocab in every game setting available to me.

Practising the Finnish language using the activity creator website Educandy.com

Practising Finnish vocabulary exported from Anki using the activity creator website Educandy.com

It also helps if you can creatively dovetail your language project into your day-to-day. I work in language app development, and curate a series of verb reference and drill apps. I used the exposure to this new language to start a brand new Finnish version of the app, learning a lot of new verbs in the process.

Music to my ears

Ultimately, the pinnacle of multimodality for me is the crossover between foreign languages and music. Finland has a particularly rich and varied Eurovision tradition (sadly not reflected in many of its contest results!). Thanks to the excellent resource Diggiloo Thrush, the lyrics of all of these pop gems are available to read and learn online. Music to the ears of a language-loving Eurovision fan.

Playing these tunes at my piano, attempting to sing along with the lyrics, was more than just a vocab exercise. Warbling along to your favourite foreign language songs is more about practising sounds out loud, having fun with the way they emerge from your own mouth.

That said, interrogating song lyrics with a dictionary is a lexical adventure all on its own. Is there a stand-out, ear worm lyric in one of your favourites? For me, one particularly catchy lyrical moment crops up in Ami Aspelund’s Fantasiaa of 1983. That punchy, initial Kuka hän on? (Who is s/he?) sticks in the mind. Thanks to her, I will never forget that kuka means ‘who’!

Obviously, there is no need to be a Eurovision fan for this (despite my protestations). Spotify offers a wealth of world music, and a quick lyrics search on Google will throw up the words to almost anything, anywhere.

Spotting the shortfalls

As well as all the upsides, Express language learning can quickly reveal the shortcomings of platforms and techniques. Learning under time pressure can shed light on the limitations of our tools (and brains). And this is no bad thing: by knowing where these potholes are, we can plan to circumnavigate them in our future projects.

For one thing, I realised that Teach Yourself books (as well as other traditional book-based courses) often off with less than immediately handy vocab for a short trip. That can seem a bit topsy-turvy. For example,I ended up learning how to introduce myself before asking for a coffee, which I had to look up when I was already in Helsinki.

The antidote? Next time, I might include phrasebooks as source material, and work on purposefully learning ‘holiday situation’ vocabulary alongside thematic course book chapters. Polyglot celeb Benny Lewis has been advocating this approach for years, and it seems like a good beginner’s strategy.

Anki workarounds

Additionally, it became clear that Anki, on its default setting, feeds through new vocabulary far too slowly for quick projects. I had reached chapter three of my course book and already added nearly 300 words. But at the ten-per-day trickle, I was never going to have practised them all by the time my  flight came around.

You can adjust this, but it is probably not advisable – our brains can only retain so much new material, and it can be counterproductive to push them beyond what their most efficient comfort zones.

So what to do instead? One solution I came up with was not to add every single lexeme, but to focus on adding the words I would find most useful on my trip. From the section on nationality I decided to keep englantilainen (English person) and ditch venäläinen (Russian person), ranskalainen (French person) and so on. A sharp focus is the order of the day with ‘in seven days’ projects.

With Anki, you must also prioritise actively the order you tackle your decks in. If your express language is part of a subdeck, it will share its new card quota with its sibling decks. Clear your other decks first, and Anki will not offer any of your new language up for learning for the rest of the day. So, for a week, Finnish had to be my first port of call when opening Anki.

Multiple language decks in Anki

Multiple language decks in Anki. Sibling decks share their new card quota, so your most pressing projects (like my express Finnish) should be tackled first.

Sometimes, adaptation might not be possible. Namely, the language might simply be absent on your favourite platforms. There is little to do about that, except look elsewhere – or wait and hope. I especially regretted the lack of a Finnish course on my current favourite platform, Duolingo. But Finnish is in the pipeline for the future, which will come in handy if (when!) I return to the language.

Boots on the ground

Remember, the start of your trip is not the end. However much you learn before the trip, the learning continues in a much more exciting, active vein on location. Suddenly, vocabulary is learnt in context, and with immediate relevance. Once in Finland, I started soaking up new words like olut (beer), maito (milk) and suola (salt). Naturally, these have gone straight into my Anki decks. Those words are now mine!

Increase that sense of ownership by recording all those new items in the full colour of multimedia. Images, videos, audio clips of friendly locals speaking (if you dare) are all par for the course. I now have a whole bank of food packaging photos after just a couple of days!

“Kiitos” (thanks) on a grocery bag from a Helsinki supermarket. Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

Kiitos! Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

And of course, being on the move abroad, there is always something else to learn just around the corner. The incorrigible linguist that I am, another nearby language is already in my sights; I might have to sneak a little Estonian in there too, for a quick hop across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn.

Finnish in seven days? What about Estonian in seven hours? 

Learning Chinese with the Newby system at the MFL Twitterati Conference

Where worlds collide: Crossing the divide between MFL Teaching and the Polyglot Community

Who doesn’t love a good conference? I’m fresh from the #mfltwitterati meet-up this weekend, and buzzing with new ideas. Now, for friends in the polyglot community, the acronym MFL might not mean a lot. It stands for Modern Foreign Languages, the standard label for secondary school language teaching departments across the UK, and familiar to the ears of British teachers and students alike.

The aims of the conference were in the best spirit of these get-togethers, being chiefly a forum for educators to come together and learn from each other. Through talks and hands-on product demos, it seemed that everybody came away with something new to try.

But for me, it shone a light on that unique position my colleagues and I occupy; that bridge between the relatively separate worlds of MFL teaching and the polyglot community. And it reminded me of the vast amount each of these communities, united in a love of languages, has to offer the other.

The polyglot winding road

The path to this in-between place was a winding one. An obsession with foreign languages led me naturally to a degree in German and Spanish, and then on to teacher training. Although I left the classroom a long time ago now to develop software for it rather than teach in it, that thread of language love connects the dots through the story to the present.

I now sit between worlds : the polyglot community and MFL provision in schools. By day I make games for language teachers, by night I teach myself. That said, the classroom itself can sometimes seem distant to us content creators. Conferences like #mfltwitterati (and the generosity of hosts, Ashcombe School, in allowing me and my colleagues to observe language classes taking place) give us the chance to reconnect with that world.

Birds of a feather

Perhaps the most striking observation to draw from the counterpoint is just how closely the two spheres have moved towards one another in the last decade. No more chalk ‘n’ talk, dog-eared course books and 101 Things to Do with an Overhead Projector (I completed my teacher training in 2002!). It’s no secret that tech is king, and teachers are as adept as polyglot-savvy learners at using it.

Some language hacks spread like wildfire and cross boundaries. Google tips and tricks were everywhere at MFL Twitterati. You can draw immediate parallels with the kind of Google hacking linguist enthusiasts are using outside schools.

Gamification, too, is flying high in both camps. An interactive demo of the excellent Newby Chinese had me lapping up Hanzi characters, envying the kids that end up playing and learning from it in class. Only a day before, I’d watched students spurred on by the same kind of multiplayer competitiveness on other MFL teaching platforms, too. Competition is a powerful motivator, and it is infectious.

Talking of competition, more than one teacher mentioned Duolingo. That ubiquitous platform is perhaps the most widespread of the gamified, leaderboard-driven language learning platforms. It’s no surprise, then, that it has well and truly colonise both sides of the divide.

Immobile books

What is perhaps most interesting is what fails to cross-pollinate between school and hobbyist learning. The traditional course book seems to be the least mobile of media. Schools have dedicated materials like Expo (French) and Logo (German). Individual learners favour programmes like Routledge’s Colloquial series and Teach Yourself.

Conversely, lots of real-world language resources, like Duolingo and Quizlet, permeate down into schools. However, it seems that the reverse is not true. Resource websites aimed at schools, like Vocab Express and Kahoot! don’t enjoy the same kind of popularity outside the classroom. This, of course, is due to their choice to specialise in secondary teaching. But given the runaway success of services like Duolingo, are they missing a trick, perhaps?

Meeting of minds?

Both scenes have their social media / talking stars who churn out ideas. But given the touch points above, we might well wonder what could happen if the likes of Joe Dale teamed up with Alex Rawlings or Benny Lewis. For instance, Benny’s dynamic, fast-results Language Hacking guides could sit nicely alongside more traditional course books for Key Stage 3 and 4.

There is already place for collaborations to begin: Twitter, of course – arguably, the biggest meeting of minds we have. But we come back to the wonderful energy of a friendly conference like #mfltwitterati. If that could be grafted onto the raw enthusiasm of the wonderful Polyglot Conference, the sky’s the limit. Food for thought for us all, whichever side of the linguistic riverbank we call our home.

It’s quite a lucky accident to have ended up with a foot in both camps. I learn so much from seeing both sides of the language learning coin. And as the divide begins to blur, the potential for collaboration on amazing new projects is huge. Let’s enjoy watching that unfold.

Presenting Educandy at the MFL Twitterati Conference

Presenting one of the Linguascope family of sites, Educandy.com, at the MFL Twitterati Conference

Voice assistants - multilingual robot helpers in your phone! (Image from freeimages.com)

You cannot be Siri-ous! Voice Assistants for Language Learning

Switching the language settings on your phone is a well-known trick for fast-tracking your language learning. But with constant improvement to Voice Assistant technology like Siri and Google Assistant, learners have something potentially even more exciting in their pockets: a mobile native speaker.

How can we take advantage of this ubiquitous technology? And how effective is it as a learning tool?

I road-tested the technique over the past few weeks using Siri in Norwegian on my iPhone. And above all, it has been a fun ride!

Behaviour change

The irony is that in spite of the widespread nature of the tech, Voice Assistants struggle to find a regular place in our lives. Barely a quarter of mobile users speak to their phone daily; 40% say they have never used the feature. Many of us leave the powerful technology of personalised AI unused, even in our native languages.

From my own personal experience, and that of family and friends, it seems that Voice Assistant apps are entertaining curios rather than serious tools. When was the last time you last asked your phone for something?

Given all this, just using Siri at all is a behaviour change for a lot of us. But that makes this technique something of a voyage of discovery, too. Just what can our clever smartphones actually do?

Vocab of the day-to-day

The answer: well, not quite everything, despite the grand claims. Siri and Google Assistant have a set of skills which focus very tightly on the organisation of the day-to-day. They are not as clever at more transactional, lengthy exchanges. So while they might not improve your general conversation skills, they provide an excellent language workout for weather, time and place vocabulary in particular.

Through experimenting with your phone, will find your own unique way to fit these specified skills of foreign language Voice Assistants into your life. For me, as a walker, the handiest phrases in my everyday have been:

  • What is the temperature today?
  • How is the weather today?
  • When is sunset today?

After repeated use of those, my Norwegian weather and time vocab is positively steaming! And the best thing? I typically hate practising number, time and date vocabulary in any language. That is the material I will skip first to get to the ‘meaty’ stuff as a learner. The novelty of using Siri in Norwegian has finally got me practising – and remembering – those essential phrases. Aiming to ask one or two of these questions daily makes for a good weekly plan tactic, too.

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Thinking on your feet

Microchips are not perfect. Your voice assistant may not always understand you first time round. That goes especially for the early stages of language learning when our speech is less colloquial. But the upside to that? It is a stellar learning opportunity.

Misunderstandings with your digital assistant force you to practise rephrasing, an essential skill in speaking foreign languages. If it doesn’t work first time, say it again in a different way. It is just as valid with your Voice Assistant as with a flesh-and-blood native speaker.

Of course, this can be a challenge. After three attempts at finding out where the nearest supermarket is, desperation may creep in. But it does force you to be creative!

Have a little fun

Now, riveting conversation all this may not be. But that is not to say that there is no attempt on the part of the developers to add some personality spice. Who hasn’t said something silly to their Voice Assistant on the first encounter, just to elicit a funny response?

If you tire of the weather, try “do you like me?“, “are you happy?” or even “I love you” in the target language. The responses may be enlightening!

Translation station

As a side note, it may seem obvious, but don’t forget that Voice Assistant apps also offer direct translation capabilities. Learning the phrases for how do you say X in … and translate X into Y turn your phone into a quick dictionary tool. The catch: it might not be available in your target-native language pair (as is the case with Norwegian-English, unfortunately).

When Siri cannot translate.

“Hey Siri, how do you say ‘translate’ in English?” “I cannot translate from that language yet, but I can search for it on the Internet.”

Cross-language fail

As fun as this language learning technique is, it is not trouble-free. In particular, there are problems when languages cross over in our multilingual lives. For instance, you may need to accustom yourself to saying the names of family and friends phonetically, as if they were target language words. Otherwise, asking Norwegian Siri to call Aisling is going to result in a very blank digital stare.

Messaging functionality is also compromised due to this cross-language fail. I instructed Siri – in Norwegian – to send a text to a friend, then dictated the text in English. Predictably (easy to say now!), Siri tried to make sense of my message as Norwegian. I now have no idea what it was originally meant to say, but it caused a great deal of confusion at the other end!

A garbled text message from my Voice Assistant

What happens when your Norwegian Voice Assistant tries to send a text in English…

One-track language

The fact is that it is quite inconvenient to switch your Voice Assistant language settings all the time. So, if you want to take advantage of this technique, you will have to accept that certain things like text and calendar functions will be hampered – if not rendered completely impossible – while you are in learning mode.

Similarly, it is only practical to do this in one language at a time. In an ideal mobile world, I could speak all my languages to Siri and it would intelligently recognise and respond in the appropriate language. Alas, we are not quite there yet.

If you work around these stumbling blocks, you can eke a great deal of useful language practice from switching your Voice Assistant language. In fact, I’ve grown rather fond of mine; I might just leave it switched to Norwegian for the foreseeable!

At the heart of it is this: using a Voice Assistant in your foreign language is, quite simply, good fun. It is a moment of show-offy, giddy pride when family and friends hear me address Siri in a foreign language, for example. It is a badge of honour, a little show of skill that can boost motivation. And that is certainly worth the effort.

Hotspot for politics: inside the cupola of the German Reichstag in Berlin

Hot Politics: cooking up language learning opportunities from election posters

It’s European Parliament election time all over the European Union – even, perhaps, in the UK after recent developments – which means that Europe is awash with slogans and soundbites again. And politics, not always a dirty word, can be great for linguists.

Political sloganism is a tightly-packed linguistic format that lends itself well to brains looking for new vocabulary and structures. As you walk through the placard-plastered streets of Berlin, Paris, Madrid and other European towns and cities, there is much to learn from the language used on all sides and across all arguments.

Billboards have blossomed over Berlin in recent weeks, illustrating the point nicely. I spent last weekend walking around the very sunny German capital, which right now serves up rich pickings for linguistically-minded politicos (or politically minded linguisticos?). A selection of them below give a taste of how voter-targeted, snappy political discourse can double as excellent source material for the language learner. *

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Europe remains our future”

Putting politics to good use

So why is this kind of language so useful?

Language microbites

For one thing, the language of political campaigning is satisfyingly bite-sized and concise. It often includes colloquialisms and phrasing that you can easily reuse in your own speech.

One way to view them is as micro-stimuli for vocabulary learning. They contain just enough content to provide new material to the learner, but are short enough not to overwhelm. That makes them perfect for language learning on the go (especially with Google Translate and Wiktionary handy to look up new words, and Anki ready to add them to your personal lexical bank). Phone in hand, you can positively milk those streets for vocab.

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Learn from people instead of just from books”

Opinion boosters

What’s more, political language is particularly rich in opinion-formulating language. You can synthesise this into your repertoire to spice up your own target-language conversations. Political slogans aim to get quickly to the point. By integrating the same kind of structures into your own speech, you can add flow to your speaking without getting bogged down in over-complex sentence construction.

In fact, that formulation of to-the-point, persuasive language still draws on ancient tricks of the political trade: rhetoric. This ancient art of arguing the case still has a lot to teach foreign language wordsmiths, and you can pick up plenty of tips from street sign politics.

If you can understand Norwegian, a recent episode of the ever excellent language podcast Språkteigen unpacks the political rhetoric behind a recent speech by Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General and former Norwegian PM. Well worth a listen!

Politics on the street: DGB poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: DGB poster in Berlin, “Worked a whole life long – that deserves respect!”

Talking points

For the same reason, poster text can act as a great, opinion-triggering stimulus for speaking with language learning peers or teachers. Do you agree with the sentiment? Why (not)? Truly, the printed messages around us cover all sides of political discourse. Let them prompt you to respond with your own, authentic reactions and counter-opinions.

Politics on the street: Die Grünen poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: Die Grünen poster in Berlin, “Only a social Europe is a strong Europe.”

Zeitgeist barometers

Finally, political campaign slogans also offer a unique snapshot of the current cultural landscape of your target language country. The hot topics of the day can be quite different from those in the world back home. Studying campaign material on the street can help you to read the Zeitgeist of your countries and cultures of interest.

Likewise, learning from material in the now is also a great way to bring your vocabulary up-to-date (especially if you used a rather old text to learn the basics from!).

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Let’s not leave digitalisation to the rest of the world.”

 

Election watch

All kinds of elections are happening all the time across our target language countries. Be in the watch-out for campaigns and the language they engender. You don’t even need to travel to far-off streets to get your fix, either. Websites and social media feeds can be a goldmine of polemical vocabulary. Very handy for those quiet periods between elections, too!

Not sure what to look out for online? Wikipedia collates useful political party lists for most countries. Here are a few to get you started:

*I should add that the sample of placards I photographed is not meant to imply any political bias – just the route I happened to walk along on that sunny day in Berlin!

Irish countryside (photo by Brian Lary, freeimages.com)

Language immersion, Irish style : learning tips from a bilingual state

It feels like I’ve been in Ireland rather a lot, lately. It’s partly due to my fairly late discovery that there is this beautiful, fascinating country to explore only a hop away from my own. But a large part of the pull is undoubtedly the Irish language, which has worked its magic on me recently.

But the magic of Irish is not simply in the beauty of the words and phrases, or the way it seems so fresh and exotic compared to the other European languages I know. It is in the way that Irish is woven into every aspect of life in Éire.

It is simply inescapable.

Irish is everywhere

Although Irish has short of just 150,00 first language speakers, the ubiquity of the language on the street signs and paraphernalia of officialdom in Ireland makes it impossible not to soak up some Gaeilge if you spend any time there.

Road signs are bilingual – and set to become even more so. The nomenclature of government and state departments is almost entirely in Irish. So are the names of many political parties. Add to that the presence of Irish-language media and common Irish words for socialising in English, like sláinte (health / cheers!), and you have the perfect ingredients for an almost imperceptible daily immersion in the language.

The benefits are twofold. If you grew up in Ireland, you are reminded on a daily basis of the Irish you learnt at school. It is impossible to forget what you once learnt! And as a visitor, you see the same words pop up time and again, with a regularity that makes them start to stick.

Surely there is a lesson in there somewhere for all of us linguists, whatever language we study.

Irish inspiration for your own language learning

Of course, there is nothing new under the sun, and this handy language everywhere immersion effect of the bilingual Irish state is no new trick. It is a technique employed, for example, by the excellent in 10 minutes series of textbooks. Each of these colourful beginner guides features pages of sticky labels to affix to objects in your home. Bumping into the words for bed, cupboard, lamp and more is a fun and effective way to learn and reinforce your core vocab.

Now, you don’t have to buy commercial versions of labels to accent your environment with. A sheet of blank labels or post-its and a pen are more than enough to get started. Keep an eye on those expensive furnishings – don’t go ruining the best chair with adhesive vandalism. But be creative: colour-code, find innovative ways to represent grammatical info, add images if they are helpful. If you study more than one foreign language, make your signs as polyglot as you are.

And why stop at labels? You can make your own temporary signs and notices using a wipe-clean whiteboard. Write on your to-do notes and shopping lists in the target language. And if you live with non-linguists, then take a leaf out of the Irish playbook: make them bilingual. Your housemates might even start to pick up a few words.

Although we can’t make our home towns and cities bilingual, we can take a leaf out of Ireland’s book* and make our homes multilingual. Ádh mór ort / good luck!

* Or that of Scotland or Wales!