The Liffey, Dublin. Dublin City University provides some excellent MOOCs via the FutureLearn platform. Image from freeimages.com.

A Model for MOOCs : Dublin City University Setting the Standard for Language Learning

This week I completed the final week of one of Dublin City University’s Irish language MOOCs on the e-course platform FutureLearn. And I can honestly report that it was one of the best online language learning experiences I’ve had.

If you are new to MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – then you might be surprised at the number of platforms offering free learning through them today. They have been around for some time, with the open source Moodle being one of the first frameworks to bring structured, online learning to the fore in 2002.

Back then, hosting courses tended to be an in-house affair. Colleges and universities set up the first e-learning departments to maintain them alongside teaching staff. I was part of one of those early teams as a subject tutor and technologist, and they were exciting times to work in education.

Now, of course, MOOCs have become a burgeoning industry in their own right, with big names like Coursera, FutureLearn and edX hosting courses from institutions across the world, with free and paid tiers.

Where are the languages?

One reason you might not have had crossed paths a great deal with MOOCs as a language learner is precisely because of the subject. Unfortunately, courses offering foreign language teaching are a little scant. You can find plenty of courses taught through the medium of other languages, like this Coursera course on business negotiation in Spanish. But if you need solid basic-to-intermediate language tuition, you have to look quite hard.

Take a look at the course catalogues on any of the frontrunners, and you will see a glut of courses on business, policy, science and tech. Not surprising perhaps, as these exposition-discussion-assignment kinds of subject fit quite neatly into the online mould. Teaching a multi-sensory, multi-skill subject like languages effectively online takes a bit more imagination.

Fortunately, some e-learning teams have more than risen to the challenge. FutureLearn’s Irish 103 by Dublin City University is a great example of that.

So what makes it special?

Irish 103

DCU struck gold with this one for several reasons. For a start, it is a really personable course, with the team very visible throughout. From the get-go, there’s a humanity and a warmth that makes it a very comfortable place to be. That extends to the forum and chat, which is busy and full of attentive course staff. The right mix of people makes or breaks a MOOC, and the recipe is just right here.

The teaching itself is also top-notch. Big wins for me include the following:

  • Lessons are full of one-click spoken Irish support. This includes Irish words in longer descriptive / explanatory paragraphs, which is invaluable for pronunciation practice.
  • Each of the four weekly sections consists of multiple, manageable chunks with a page per point. You can easily dip in and out to fit learning round a busy schedule – no need to leave anything half done.
  • It is a safe and welcoming community where participants are constantly invited to contribute. Use of Padlet, SpeakPipe and social media strengthened learning across the skills while encouraging sharing and peer support.
  • The cultural aspect is very strong. As a grammar geek, I can sometimes focus solely on the language to the detriment of social and historical context. The course placed the language right into its cultural setting, meshing language and culture seamlessly through multimedia and storytelling. I found myself researching traditional Irish music and learning more about the feadóg stáin (tin whistle) and bodhrán (winnowing drum) well beyond the course materials!
  • The external linked resources like teanglann.ie and tearma.ie are well selected and hugely helpful. They enable the learner to build up an invaluable online personal reference library for further study. You not only learn words and phrases – you gain tools.
  • There are lots of references to points covered in previous and future courses in the same series. This gives a sense of cohesion and progression, but also of being a step on a guided journey to more advanced topics. There is a 10X and 20X track, and I already look forward to what else is ahead.

MOOCS – what you make of them

Clearly, I got a lot from this MOOC. But as with all resources, they are also a product of what you make of them. As well as engaging with the course materials, I found it useful to write down key vocab and phrases each week for my own revision. I also made a lot of use of Anki, adding new words to my Irish deck to practise outside the course. With PDF transcripts and other convenient formats for stimulus material, it is nice and simple to copy-paste into your own notes.

Any successful MOOC allows you this freedom to be creative with the content by doing the heavy organisational lifting. It was this chance to take my foot off the organising pedal that I found particularly valuable, in fact. As an avid planner and box-ticker, I enjoy organising my own learning. That said, organisation is a beast all of its own, and takes lots of time. Here, the course structure took over. The confident, clean style (partly down to FutureLearn’s sharp, clear interface) reassured me that I could let the MOOC handle all that, while I enjoyed the journey.

In short, learning on #FTIrish103 simply felt effortless and effective. The best indication of the value I attached to it is that it fulfilled my ‘what could I be doing instead’ test. Whilst trying to avoid falling into obsessive Duolingo point-chasing, Irish 103 seemed like the obvious worthwhile alternative. It is absolutely purposeful and directed.

Going on a MOOCs hunt

I was lucky to stumble across Irish 103. I was already learning Irish and Scottish Gaelic independently, for a start, so it matched my current learning projects. And that is largely a matter of luck – I am still on the lookout for similar courses in Greek or Polish, which would be very helpful right now. Frustratingly, the search goes on in that direction.

However, all is not lost if you fail to turn up a relevant course (or a MOOC in a new language fails to tempt you to dabble in it!). As already mentioned, if you already have some proficiency in the language already, you could try a course for native speakers in any subject that takes your fancy. The ‘mainstream’ foreign languages like French, German and Spanish are best represented here.

Alternatively, you could choose the path of the geek – my personal favourite. Moodle is still very much alive and in constant development, and free to download. You can install this on your own web server, then dive straight into course creation. Moodle is fairly easy to get to grips with, and you can get up and running with week-by-week course plans of your own very quickly. For a completely open source solution, you could even use public domain resources as a base, like the Live Lingua materials for instance, and create drill activities from them with Moodle’s built-in quiz features.

And then, of course, you can share your wonderful, inspired MOOCs with the rest of us. Sometimes, making – for yourself and others – is the best route to learning. If you can inject as much imagination and subject passion into it as the Irish 103 team, you’ll be on to a winner.

Irish 103 opened my eyes to how good language learning MOOCs can be. I’m already looking forward to Irish 104!

Language learning - we evolve continuously. Picture of a page from a Greek dictionary. Picture from freeimages.com.

Evolving as a Language Learner : Changed for good

Life is a journey, and our paths through language learning certainly reflect that. Through our experiences with languages, we constantly evolve.

Old habits fade as they prove themselves less effective. And new ones get grafted on, particularly as we learn from others. The online language learning community is a goldmine of fresh approaches and novel techniques to try. Last week, I talked about a chance spot on Twitter that led to me back to a brilliantly effective listening strategy. In the words of Glinda (there must be a few Wicked fans amongst you), I do believe I have been changed for the better by my friends and colleagues through such lucky circumstances.

It is helpful to take stock of your evolution as a learner in this way at regular intervals. For one thing, it is a well-needed confidence boost to notice how you gradually hone your craft over time. For another, it is very meta – you learn about your learning – and that bird’s eye view of your language learning approach can inform how you develop further. I have certainly spotted a shift in my own behaviour over the last few months in particular.

So how have I changed for the better lately?

Keep it active

First off, I did away with a rather convenient excuse for being lazy.

The thing is, we all like the idea of shortcuts. I’ve been chasing them for years, spurred on, I must add, by the indefatigable legions of ‘get fluent quick’ peddlers. After all, their claims are hard to resist. The notion of passive learning is one in particular I fell for. At its most extreme, it covers techniques like subliminal or sleep learning – nod off listening to your learning material, while your subconscious takes care of it all, silently and efficiently. I was fascinated – and ultimately disappointed – by this as a young language enthusiast. 

Older and wiser, the idea of passive learning in rather less snake-oily formats still grabs me. But its hold is weakening. Although nobody will wake up fluent in German from a night of slumber accompanied by Goethe or Schiller on the headphones, there is something in the idea of creating your own immersion environment to soak up the language effortlessly. Put simply, having language all around you simply gets you in the mood.

That said, it is no magic pill. Working actively and regularly with the language through techniques such a dictation represent the real elbow grease. Instead of doing the minimum and hoping ‘it will all stick in the end’, I am much more likely to put the hard work in now – and enjoy it, in the knowledge that it brings better results.

At least in my experience, passive absorption is only truly effective in a dynamic target language setting – that is, working or living for some time abroad.

This is not to say that we can’t gain a little benefit from setting up immersive environments with an aim to (very gradual) language acquisition. Passive listening is by no means a complete dead duck, and I still use it as a way to attune my ear to a language before an iTalki lesson, for instance. And it is still a rewarding and fun experience to ‘target language up’ your home.

Language rage: Chasing the points

In the same get fluent quickly and easily! (flashing neon sign) vein, we have the ubiquitous language learning app. In this age of casual, gameified learning, there is an app for almost any tongue you might care to learn. And don’t get me wrong – I love that. I am a self-confessed Duolingo fiend. As a leg-up into a new language for beginners, or a daily vocab-boosting tool for more intermediate learners, it is hard to beat. As an app developer myself, I wish I had produced a tool like that.

But I stand up now in my Appists Anonymous meeting and proudly proclaim: I am a reformed addict. When I realised that it had become all about chasing the points and moving through the leagues, it dawned on me: the technology should never become the end in itself.

I still love apps like Duolingo and Drops, and spend a little time on them every day. But now, I use what I call the “what will I gain from this” test. When the urge takes me to go on a Duo points binge, I ask myself: what will I gain from this? Is this a productive use of my time? Are the things I would get more from for the same time outlay? If so, should I maybe give those priority.

Competitive, game infield apps can be great motivators, but great time drains too. Control them. Don’t let them control you.

Social Bookending

Many of our community are runners-before-walkers. It comes from studying a subject from a point of passion, a fuel that pushes us on to skip the starters and devour that juicy, advanced content as soon as we can.

While that is a happy place to be – languages are joy, after all – I now take time to revisit the social building blocks, the prosaic scripts of the everyday, too. I wrote recently about spending time on the social bookends of foreign language communication, the day-to-day transactional ‘glue’ that frames the meaty, interesting stuff we really want to say. It is a transformative habit. It has made countless iTalki lessons immeasurably smoother and more pleasant.

What’s more, the lovely feedback I received after writing that post made me realise that it is something we are all tackling together.

If you love an academic bent to your language journey, the wallowing in grammars and arcane vocabulary, this can be one of the hardest shifts to make. But it pays off. Not least in a language like Greek, which I recently picked up again. Greek language and culture is the apotheosis of social bookending. χάρηκα, τι κάνεις φίλε μου, πώς είσαι, αμάν, λοιπόν, έλα βρε παιδί μου! You can reel off three or four in a row before you even get started. And you will sound like you know the language MUCH better than you really do. Winner.

No baggage

Finally, life is replete with ‘should’ and ‘supposed to’. Our language learning world is no different. For years, I felt some moral obligation to focus on one or two languages at a time. However, that limit-your-options stipulation is baggage from a pre-internet world where we had to choose just one or two languages at school.

But there is no have to in self-directed learning today. Everything is out there fo the learning.

And why not go for it? Dabbling is an extremely healthy habit that can bolster your main language projects. It is also a tool to cast a wider net, offering an excellent route to greater cultural awareness. And there is no better time for that.

Leaving the polyglot guilt behind is a game-changer, and my fellow community dabblers reaffirm that every day through their enthusiastic, shame-free social media shares. I am glad I embraced it.

Taking stock

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. I keep going, and I keep evolving. I am open to ideas. The online community continues to be a source of huge inspiration, and I am forever grateful for that. So, what next?

Well, who knows? And that is the exciting part. I like to imagine myself writing this article again in a year or so. And I like to think I might surprise myself.

How have your language learning habits changed over the years? Let us know in the comments!

Dictation exercise in Icelandic by Richard West-Soley

Dictation Inspiration : Back to basics with listening comprehension

Sometimes a really helpful technique is staring you in the face, and you fail to see it. Or you see it, and you fail to use it, for whatever reason. So it was for me with dictation, the wonderfully straightforward listening activity that other language learners employ with great success.

Dictation – or Diktando, as many know it – needs no introduction. It is one of the simplest language exercises around. Simply listen, and transcribe. It is the ultimate in cheap, accessible techniques, too – you just need a source (a podcast will do), and pen and paper.

But, for some reason, I had completely ignored it up to now.

Ignorance is no excuse, to my shame. For a start, Linguascope has featured a dictation exercise in each of its Beginner units for years – and I even developed it. Legions of kids had benefitted from my use of it in a resource, but somehow, it was not for me. Perhaps it was that association with the beginner level that put me off. I want to maintain and improve a set of languages beyond A1 for the most part, and dictation always seemed like a kind of pre-learning, preparatory, elementary game, something that put sounds before meaning.

But that was exactly what I needed.

Listening denial

I struggle with listening. I am certainly not alone in that, and I gain a lot from listening to teachers speak about improving students’ listening skills in the classroom. But at the same time as acknowledging that it is my toughest challenge, I still chug along in a bit of denial. It will just click of its own accord, I think. It will all fall into place. Maybe I just need to listen to a few more podcasts. I just need a bit more passive exposure.

It is partly the tendency to run before we can walk that leads us to these places. But what I really needed was a back-to-basics, purposeful, sounds first approach to listening. And dictation was sitting there, beckoning.

Dictation inspiration

Luckily enough, the activity popped up on my feed recently via one of the community’s most popular voices, Lindie Botes. I spotted a tweet in which she shared a podcast dictation she was working on, and was impressed and intrigued:

Here was dictation in use at a higher level, by someone with the same ambitious language goals as I have. Lindie’s approaches always command a lot of respect in the community. So, I thought, perhaps this did merit a revisit.

Spurred on, I chose two languages I speak reasonably well (B1-ish), but struggle to get past the listening barrier with: Icelandic and Polish. I set aside some time in the week for dictation tasks and selected my materials. It was easy to find sources to unleash myself on. For a start, I could pick from any of the woefully neglected podcasts that I subscribe to and never get round to listening to.

Warts and all

One thing quickly became clear: dictation really exposes your listening weaknesses. Now I understand what I was afraid of. All your difficulties, your neglect and your lack of practice are laid bare, warts and all. But finally, you see them – and only then can you work on them.

The thing about close listening is that you pay intense attention to the ebb and flow of words in the target language. You get to know how they run into each other, how they affect each other in terms of coarticulation. I realised I could know every word and every syntactical turn in a sentence, yet still not catch it until the fourth or fifth listen. For a grammar geek, in the habit of examining the nuts and bolts in isolation, this task was clearly well overdue.

But on the upside, another thing came as a complete surprise: the mindful nature of longer dictation exercises. That intense focus draws you into something of a flow state after a few minutes. Before you know it, a look at the clock confirms half an hour has passed without you noticing. Rather than the boring, mindless activity I assumed it to be, it was positively absorbing.

In fact, it took me back to my teenage years as a fanatical Eurovision nerd, pausing and rewinding cassette-taped songs to scribble down barely understood lyrics. I would take hours to get them right, no doubt ending up with some half-accurate, half-phonetic mush I could at least try to sing at the piano. I still warble some of those misheard lyrics in the shower, even today.

Letting go of perfectionism

But that, of course, is one of the biggest lessons dictation has to offer us. Aiming for perfection is more likely to scupper than to assist. Because, despite all of the technological crutches like playback looping and variable speed, you will struggle with some phrases.

In fact,  I found that slowing down to 50% often hindered comprehension. This is because sounds that are articulated quickly together change their quality. We are used to hearing that occur at normal speed, but at a snail’s pace, sounds can just sound weird.

For instance, I was certain that one Icelandic phrase was undir röklunum, searching desperately for the meaning of the non-existent second word. Finally, I played the phrase at normal speed, and realised that it was actually undir jöklunum (under the glaciers), with the -r affecting the quality of the following j-. This is a nice illustration of how over-focus on word-level language can hamper progress.

Dictation exercise in Icelandic by Richard West-Soley

One of my far-from-perfect dictation exercises in Icelandic

For a perfectionist like me, dictation can also be helpful in diminishing the pathological need for 100%. If you get stuck down a phonological rabbit hole, you must simply move on, else the whole activity grinds to a halt. Your heart will sink the first few times you leave a gap, but more and more you find that the following material fills in enough context to go back and complete the rogue snippets.

Likewise, dictation involves letting go of ‘neat work’ compulsions. I am a stickler for a nice neat page of writing (no doubt the former teacher coming out in me). As you can see from my scrawl, dictation necessitates rather a lot of amendments and crossings out. You have to accept the rough with the smooth. Perhaps the boldest claim yet: dictation, not only great language practice, but also a cure for OCD! 

Dictation exercise in Polish by Richard West-Soley

Dictation exercise in Polish

In short, I am a convert. I am becoming a better listener for giving this language learning staple a fair chance. I will continue with these exercises, perhaps even as a daily tactic. Just a regular ten minutes or so in weaker languages could make all the difference.

Is dictation one of your language learning strategies? Do you have particular techniques or a novel take on the exercise you find useful? Let us know in the comments!

Kigali Conference Centre. Image by By Raddison - https://www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-kigali, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74779948

Unhiding African Languages : Redressing the bias

It is fairly uncontroversial to state that we live in troubled times right now. Try as many of us might to separate languages and politics, it is impossible to keep our neat, studious worlds sealed from the social shifts taking place.

Current discourse around racism in particular encourages us all to interrogate our own philosophies and world views. As open-minded, curious language learners, we might naively assume we are more immune to cultural bias than most. We point to the fact that we explore, consume, and learn about other cultures to become something more worldly and understanding.

It is true that language is a periscope to peer over the wall and see lives lived differently. But we fall foul of one big, structural fault:

An entire continent is hidden from our view.

The near absence of African languages from the online community is a serious blindspot for all of us. For example, take the Niger-Congo languages. Just short of a billion people speak them. They represent the third largest language family in the world. But they are practically invisible in those social media circles that celebrate language learning.

African languages and Western bias

We might try to defend this in several ways. Chiefly, there is “I simply have no interest in them“. That view, however, is difficult to separate from a position of power in a colonial backstory that devalued African languages from the outset. As universities opened in Sub-Sarahan Africa, they were in the Western mould. Teaching and research was – and continues to be, despite activism – overwhelmingly anglophone or francophone. The resulting lack of academic activity around indigenous languages means that African languages are simply not represented within Western education systems to the extent that other foreign languages are. Students – and adult learners – lack the exposure to them needed to spark any initial interest.

The knock-on effect is a lack of accessible learning resources for African languages. Check any bookshop – aside from the odd text like Colloquial Swahili, where would you start if you wanted to learn, say, Luganda or Kinyarwanda?

And this lack of mainstream text books is more than simply an inconvenience. How many of us, for instance, have spotted a potential new language project after chancing upon it during a bookshop browse? Estonian, spoken by just over a million people, might catch your eye as you peruse the shelves in Waterstones. But Igbo, with around 18 million speakers, is most likely out of the race before the start whistle sounds.

We might also try to counter the argument by pointing to the visibility of other, non-Indo-European groups in language study. Japanese, Korean or Chinese, perhaps. But then, these are large, prosperous societies with considerably more prestige capital and global clout than African nations. They do not struggle for global visibility.

So if the issue is structural, it is wrong to talk of any individual fault. It is the system we are embedded in. But we can do something to push back against it.

Bursting the bubble

If institutionalised content is not available, turn to the people. Many African content creators have used YouTube as a means to open up their languages to the world. From the brilliant Made In Igbo channel, to the personal projects of others in Kinyarwanda and Luganda, great, free content is just asking to be liked and shared.

And of course, it is not just about the words. Through exploring and interacting with online content, you catch glimpses of a whole other world. Music, film, fashion – all otherwise absent from our mainstream media. I came across this great Rwandan pop song via a short tutorial video on the channel theoisback:

Just compare the invisibility of this media with the cultural exports from richer, more powerful regions, which find their way into every nook of our lives. It is not a question of quality, but of the power to be seen.

You can break through the book barrier, too. If you prefer to explore more traditional course materials rather than online resources, then the Live Lingua project is an eye-opener. As a collection of materials from decades of language teaching for the US Peace Corps, it offers courses on languages you never see on the High Street. Just like YouTube videos, they also include cultural insights that begin to fill in the gaps of our bubble world view.

What difference will it make?

As single actors in a colossal, ingrained system, we may well wonder what difference we can possibly make. What good will it do to undo the institutional invisibility of African languages in our individual lives?

But our greatest tool is our community – our networks to discuss, share, inspire. Dabblers, try some Swahili (Duolingo has a good basic introduction) and let others know about it. Find authentic content you enjoy and share it on social media. Together, let us raise the visibility profile – and prestige – of African languages as much as possible.

When we do journey outside our bubble, it enriches us. We realise that there are a million and one ways to ‘do’ language, and we barely even scratch the surface with the narrow selection on our path. But, ultimately, we learn the lesson of co-humanity. We produce language using the same linguistic building blocks, the same brains, the same bodies. As human beings, there is so much more that unites us than divides us.

Certainly, Africa is not the only hidden, underrepresented part of the linguistic globe. We could have the very same argument about South American indigenous languages, aboriginal Australian languages and so on. But at this juncture in history, redressing this particular imbalance seems critical, pertinent, urgent.

In the face of our current societal challenges, it might seem such a tiny thing to do. But it is something.

A brick wall. Image from freeimages.com.

Peering Over the Brick Wall : Sharing Your Authentic Self on Social Media

Standing up to be counted can be a big, scary thing. But this week, I was inspired by a spate of self-sharing videos on social media. They were brave fellow learners, who shared their skills in spite of their own reservations about accuracy and fluency. They stuck their heads above the wall.

And the best thing? They received only love and positive vibes back for it.

Seeing them put themselves out there and thrive got me reflecting on my own use of social media. For sure, the medium has been a wonderful platform to share and learn from others. The polyglot community in particular is one of the warmest, most welcoming groups I have ever been part of online.

But sometimes it seems like the real journey – what it is to be in our very own shoes – gets lost behind the sea of text. 

Hiding behind words

The irony is that the object of our passion – the love of words – is responsible for hiding this authenticity. Text-only just feels safe. Being disembodied from the whole, we can hold our personalities at a safe distance from the words we throw out there. Lob an utterance, then dive for cover.  No surprise, incidentally, that online interaction is so often marred by keyboard warriors who seem much more belligerent in the comments than face-to-face.

No hiding for these brave souls, though. They put themselves out there and proudly proclaim: this is what I do because this is what I love. Huge kudos.

What’s more, they perceptibly grow in confidence from all the constructive feedback. We could all do with a bit of that!

The brick walls

So what holds back those of us who stay – at least for now – in the shadows of Twitter’s 280 characters or the security of the blog post? The shy language learners? As it turns out, the brick walls in our way are pretty universal, and not only amongst language learners.

To start with, there is that big monster Impostor Syndrome. This is the feeling that we are simply getting along by the skin of our teeth, passing in a world full of much more competent peers. It is incredibly common. You can bet that nearly all those competent peers will wonder the same, though. And time and time again, it is the support of friends and colleagues that helps reveal that fallacy and rebuilt your self-belief.

It is also completely normal to be averse to public failure. Nobody likes that – especially if the subject is such a cherished and personally important one. But in that fear, we can forget how enabling and wall-demolishing it can be to take social risks now and again. Being too serious leaves us more vulnerable to the bruises that unconstructive criticism can inflict. Which, by the way, happen much less frequently than we fear. People in a passionate community tend to want to help each other more than not, in my experience.

Finding the brave

Interesting, then, how the things language learners could do well to work on are often not the objects of study themselves, but the wider context of the self. That is, the authentic, language-loving self: the human face hiding behind it all.

And what better inspiration than these polyglot social media sharers? 

One of the best things about the polyglot community is solidarity. It comes in big, satisfying dollops with friendly smiles. Through interacting with fellow learners, it not only becomes clear that we all come up against these same brick walls at times. Equally, many friends and colleagues are also eager to share resources to help others climb over them.

One of the most useful tip-offs I received was for Jonathan Huggins’ 30-day Speaking Challenge website. Some participants upload their daily tasks to YouTube, and share their links in the supportive peer environment. However, you can choose to upload just a sound file of you speaking, if that feels more comfortable. It is a safe, supportive environment to start revealing a bit of your authentic, language-learning self.

The challenge was free, but recently became a paid service. That said, having completed it several times in the past, I believe it is well worth the small fee. Jonathan clearly does a great deal of work behind the scenes to support each monthly cohort.

Peering over the brick wall

But you can get started all on your own, by just taking a little step to show your authentic self to the world. So what was stopping me?

I got myself with that one. I really didn’t have a good excuse. And with that answer, I took the plunge. Just a little one, mind. So I leave you with my own little piece of brave – a short clip of me speaking some basic Greek while sitting out in the sun today.

It’s far from perfect. I don’t feel particularly confident about the way I look on there (lockdown scruff). After recording it, I realised I made a mistake (I made Edinburgh feminine instead of neuter). And I haven’t turned it into the all-singing, all-dancing video production I feel it should be in my perfectionist mind.

But I remember those fellow sharers, and I realise that if we focus only on the minor quibbles, we never dare to show anything. So, here is a bit of authentic self. And that’s what we should all be striving to share.

An Icelandic puffin. Image from freeimages.com

The Icelandic Struggle : An Adventure in Weak and Strong Adjective Endings

The struggle is real. Icelandic adjective endings can be a real pain.

Granted, declining adjectives is not an exclusively Icelandic trial. Adjectives that decline for gender, number – and, where applicable, case – crop up in many languages. French, Italian, Russian and Spanish learners will have to tackle their variable nature at some point.

But strongly declined Germanic languages – I’m looking at you, German and Icelandic – add a very special complication to the mix:

There are two sets of adjective endings when used attributively in noun phrases like “good food” or “the brown dog”: strong and weak.

So why two sets? Well, the strong set is used when there is no other determiner with the noun, like the. These strong declensions are more marked according to gender, number and case. Conversely, the weak set comes into play when a word like the or this is present in the noun phrase. These are more generalised and show less variation than the strong set. Compare the German:

Strong gutes Essen good food
Weak das gute Essen the good food

That -s on the strong version of that adjective? It is the typical neuter nominative -s ending. In the weak version, the article das already shows that, so the adjective no longer needs to.

I always remember the way my A-level German teacher, Mr Wenham, put it. The weak kind is excused from having to reflect the full details about gender, number and case, since the article does all the hard work. A nice explanation from a very nice teacher (you always remember the good ones!).

The Icelandic struggle

The split between weak and strong adjective declensions is something that comes naturally in German now. But I did start learning German when I was just eleven, so that’s over thirty years to get my head around it. (Needless to say, it only really all clicked into place when I started reading more extensively in the language in my twenties.)

On the other hand, Icelandic has been another story. The system itself works in exactly the same way as German, giving us, for example:

Strong góður matur good food
Weak góði maturinn the good food

But for some reason or other, I have trouble with the weak endings in particular. You might expect the opposite, since strong endings are the ones that display all the variation, being excused from carrying all the grammatical markers. But that’s probably why they do stick – they much more obviously fit the specific gender/number/case mix.

Conversely, the weak endings have taken a long time to stick. They seem more abstract, lacking a real hook to memorise each particular flavour and combination.

Here is the full set of them, taken from the excellent Litli málfræðingurinn, the free grammar e-book:

Weak adjective declension in Icelandic.

Weak adjective declension in Icelandic (taken from Litli málfræðingurinn).

Now, as much as I love a good grammatical declension table, this must look boggling to anyone at first glance. So how to break it down and get a grip on each use case?

Pattern spotting

Our first instinct with grammar tables is usually to search for patterns. Instantly, a couple leap out here. The plural weak endings are all -u, for example. Likewise, all the neuter singular ones are -a, which is also helpful. And we can simplify that larger table by just looking at the top section, since the other two are just illustrating different classes of adjective – the endings are the same. That gives us something like this, colour-coded to show common patterns:

Spotting patterns in Icelandic weak adjective endings.

Spotting patterns in Icelandic weak adjective endings.

But as handy as this is, spotting abstract patterns is just that – learning on an abstract level. Great for writing, when you have time to consult your visual memory. Less snappy for speaking. After all, native speakers hardly look up tables of endings in their minds when speaking fluently, so this might not be the best approach for long-term foreign language fluency. As a grammar geek, learning tables by rote has its appeal, but is not always the best route to talking.

Thankfully, there is something even more powerful than abstract pattern spotting. It is the power of learning ready-declined, bite-sized model noun phrases.

Ready-made chunks

Theories of first language acquisition generally focus on infants consuming models of intelligible input. Taking this as a starting point, the temptation might be to start inventing model noun phrases to memorise, like “the big dog”, “the red car” and so on.

This can be helpful, but there is an even better way – to seek out examples from real-life, which will have greater salience, and are therefore more likely to settle swiftly in long-term memory.

We can find these real-world mental anchors all over the place when we move around in the target language world, physically or virtually. Rich sources include place names – famous and everyday – as well as book and film titles. Some of of my mnemonics are cafés and restaurants from previous trips to Iceland, for example. Here are a few:

But wait – no feminine examples? I must admit that I struggled to find any very well-known ones. (There must be some – please share in the comments if you know any!) So what then?

Desperately seeking adjectives

If you flounder when seeking out famous or prêt-à-porter declined snippets, all is not lost. Simply use your grammar and/or teacher to make up your own. But be mindful about it: use phrases that are relevant to your target language world or ambitions. They will be much easier to remember if they relate to your world.

Let’s fill out those feminine noun gaps, then. Enjoy chatting politics? Learn “the best policy” (besta stefnan) as  your model. Music buff? Try “the Icelandic singer” (íslenska söngkonan).

It can also be fun to enlist well-known song titles or lyrics in the fight to memorise endings. Here are a couple you might recognise:

  • Stærsta ástin (The Greatest Love)
  • Græna hurðin (The Green Door)

Pivoting to other cases

So far, so good. But these are all in the nominative case. The next step is to extend these examples to all the other cases to provide a complete set of examples. For instance, pop the preposition frá before them to give you a model for the dative case:

  • frá Hvíta húsinu (from the White House)

Or for the genitive, learn the phrase with vegna (because of):

  • vegna stærstu ástarinnar (because of the greatest love)

For sure, you will have to come up with a fair few examples to work through the full set of endings. But you can approach this gradually, slowly but surely expanding your bank of useful chunks.

Worth the slog

The phrase-model technique is similar to that particular school of Anki use that recommends that we forget individual words, but always learn sentences (see the link for an example of the age-old debate). The argument goes that learning phrases, you have a ready-to-use bank of flowing language, rather than a mental dictionary that still needs a lot of conjugational work after the point of look-up. In fact, the Icelandic noun phrase approach here is a nice bridge between the two – learning discrete chunks of pre-declined model noun phrases that can slot into your speech.

If you are learning Icelandic, I hope these tricks help those endings to stick. And if not, you can take a similar approach to get a grip on your particular language’s twists and turns. Or maybe, just maybe, it might even entice you to dip your toe into Icelandic, too. It is worth the slog!

Of course, the biggest lesson for me in all this is: if you really want to learn those endings, then write a blog article about them!

Sunlight through the clouds. Image from FreeImages.com

The Power of One Deep Breath

Content, content, content. So often, the sole focus is on what we study. We hear a lot less about the setting, the timing and the flow. But these can have a huge impact on learning success. And something as simple as a long, deep breath and a moment of pause can be the difference between successful study and an uphill slog.

I hit my latest brick wall this week. Studying, working, eating, relaxing in the same place was taking its toll. There was just no ebb and flow, no contrast between functions.

And contrast is important. Human beings need variety. We crave perpetual motion. Lockdown robs us of that, and even the most committed of us can struggle without the punctuation of life’s usual rhythms, the momentum of an ever-changing background.

It hardly helps that for many language enthusiasts, the arcs of motion usually swing well beyond house, home, library and coffee shop. There is solidarity on social media, where once avid travellers console each other over the Covid wing-clipping. A static, motionless life can have a stalling effect on motivation.

It is time to take a breath of fresh air.

Catching your breath

Fortunately, inspiration was close at hand. I am lucky enough to count a bunch of wonderful professional coaches amongst my friends. This enthusiastic group is adept at helping others overcome stumbling blocks in the way of achieving their goals. I recognise the power of good coaching – I have first-hand experience of how working one-to-one with a coach can bring great results in language learning.

Through one of these wonderful colleagues*, I recently came across a simple space clearing exercise. Now space is what I desperately needed. With every task, every chore, every project running into a big amorphous mass, it felt like there was no separation, no flow. I was going straight from household chores to work tasks to close study, but without the usual change of scene or mental breather. Mental baggage from one task would hang around in the next. 

Logjam.

The antidote uses deep, focused breathing to clear the air – quite literally – before a focused session. Essentially, it is a forced stop and reset before changing gear. My coaching colleague uses it to great effect at the start of his coaching one-to-ones, but it is just as helpful before a study bout.

The technique is simple. Sitting comfortably at your workspace, close your eyes. Inhale deeply three times, exhaling each breath in a slow, controlled way. Focus closely on the cool air entering your lungs, then exiting, warmed by your body heat. Then, take in another long, deep breath, and hold it for two or three seconds before exhaling. When you are ready, open your eyes.

You just added a bit of sorely needed punctuation to your routine.

The whole thing takes less than a minute and requires zero practice or tuition. I have tried it when switching between work and study over the past week, and it is an excellent quick fix. It eases the transition from one mode to another, creating a stopgap, a fresh start, and minimising that tendency to carry across mental baggage and distractions.

Mindful learning

Of course, this is is the bread and butter of mindfulness – a general approach to mental wellbeing deemed effective enough be run as part of student support programmes in a number of UK schools. Fans of mindful apps like Headspace will likewise be very familiar with these kinds of techniques using breathing to slow down, step back and reset the mindset.

That said, there can be a certain reluctance amongst many to try out these techniques. I should know – I was initially sceptical myself. With an eye on the soley practical sphere, the learning content alone, spending time getting the mind ready to learn retreats into the background a little. It can also feel – let’s admit it – a bit silly sitting at your desk with your eyes closed when you first try it.

But the space clearing technique shows that mindful approaches need not take up any significant amount of time, or even require lots of background research. A couple of deep breath – that really is all there is to it. No long-winded, complicated techniques to master.

And even if the desk-breathing technique is not for you, you can create your own punctuation points. Jog. Do five minutes of simple stretching. Make a coffee. Have a bop around the living room to your favourite song.

Anything can be your one deep breath, as long as it clears your head space.

*Big thanks to Simon for introducing me to the space clearing technique!

A row of old books. Image from freeimages.com

Social Bookending : Scripting conversation start and end points for better flow

Tim Burton tells us that every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or was it Jean-Luc Godard – or even Aristotle? Anyway, whoever – and whenever – it was, they had a pretty solid, if obvious, point.

Language enthusiasts face a very particular struggle, and one very close to my heart. It’s that compulsion to run before we can walk. This is not necessarily a completely negative trait. For one thing, it demonstrates our high ambitions and commitment to the subject. But in a one-to-one session when you just want to focus on your favourite topics, it can leave you being middle-heavy – all filling and no bread, in sandwich terms.

For instance, my brain is usually so focused on the material I wanted to cover in conversation (music, language, politics) that I am regularly caught on the hop when switching into intro and outro – or social niceties – mode. The winding up and the winding down of conversation are things I just assume will happen of their own accord. But they rarely do.

First confession: that’s chiefly because I spend so little time on them as a learner.

For me, at least, the reason is simple: learning chitchat is just not as interesting as the meaty, topical stuff. It’s the reason I’m always so tempted to leap three or four chapters in when I start a new language book. We all want to be rootin’, tootin’, high-falutin’ fluent speakers, and so we grab at the highest branches.

That’s totally understandable.

Social bookends: real-life framing

That said, it’s impossible to ignore that social dimension. Sudden starts and full-stops just don’t happen very often in real-life conversation. We don’t meet friends for coffee and immediately launch into a diatribe on the state of things, before disappearing to our next appointment.

Just as we bookend our coffee shop gossip with social glue, our language lessons should also reflect this real-life framing. After all, we hope eventually to communicate with other humans using the foreign language. Part of everyday communication is all that built-in, rote-learnt social interaction – the script of interaction. Effective language lessons must teach us to operate fully within these social scripts, as well as equip us with the vocab and grammar knowhow to decline verbs and rattle off sophisticated arguments. In other words, to operate as living, breathing, social entities within the language environment.

Now, it sometimes feels like talking openly about difficulties and failings is anathema in our online learning communities. It tends so often to be about the biggest, the brightest, the best. So another confession:

I really struggle with the language of social interaction.

Motivating myself to spend time learning various ways of saying hello, how are you doing, goodbye, is not my favourite thing. Smalltalk, even in English, does not happen for me without a lot of coaxing. But after countless lessons fumbling and floundering at the start and the finish, I realised how inescapable it all is.

Curating social scripts

I needed a way in to fix this. A means to make it more appealing. So, as a remedy, I appealed to my inner collector. This is the side of my personality that revels in curating lists of vocabulary and learning arcane grammatical exceptions from two-inch thick tomes. Obsessive, geekish list-writer Rich to the rescue!

I scoured dialogues in textbook dialogues. I mind-mapped the phrases I use in my native language and sought translations of them using resources like Tatoeba. I used subtitles to mine intro and outro phrases from TV and film (although it’s shocking how often phone conversations end abruptly on screen, as opposed to real life!).

There are myriad places to find social glue. When you do, note them all down in one place. (I probably don’t need to add that I use Evernote to store mine.)

A list of social niceties in Icelandic

Learning to ‘do’ social language (my working document for Icelandic)

It’s not just about ‘bye’ and ‘see you’. It’s about the extra stuff like ‘take care!’, ‘keep well’, ‘have a nice weekend’, ‘say hello to X’, ‘enjoy your evening’. It’s all the padding that makes start and end transitions a bit friendlier, a bit less abrupt, a bit more natural.

You may well ask why I still need to work from a list. Well, this stuff just doesn’t happen naturally for me at all. Some people are natural social butterflies. I just get lost in the detail sometimes – even in my own language!

When the time comes, I pop my list up, and have before me lots of ready-made one-liners I can use to ease in or wind things down nicely. And, eventually (hopefully!), these interjections become second nature.

Right under your nose

Yes, this might seem like pretty obvious advice. But aren’t the most obvious things the easiest to overlook? Having a bank of starters and finishers at your fingertips can make lessons so much brighter and less uncomfortable, particularly if you use 100% target language with your teacher.

Students, start your own crib notes to start and finish your lessons smoothly. And teachers, help your students to level up in these skills. Banish that social awkwardness by learning your lines like the linguistic actor you are training to become.

Soon you’ll be running like a well-oiled social machine!

The Parthenon at the Acropolis, Athens. Image from freeimages.com.

Eating my way back to Greek

Sometimes an old, long-neglected language project will rise up and demand attention again. “Remember me, old friend?” The reasons can be many. But the call can be hard to resist. Over the past few weeks, my former passion for Greek bubbled up from the linguistic Lethe, that river of oblivion where loved ones drift off to be forgotten. And the trigger? Food. This is fast becoming a theme…

Now, this taste for all things Greek is nothing new. I was always a bit of an unabashed Hellenohile. Some of my earliest solo expeditions, learning about the world as a travel-mad youth, were to Greece.  In fact, my first trip abroad on my own was island-hopping back in 1997, armed with just a one-way ticket and a rucksack. Admittedly, it wasn’t a complete success – I had money stolen from my debit card and had to come home early and dejected (although a happy ending: everything was reimbursed by the bank on my return, thankfully). 

Richard West-Soley in Athens, Greece in 1997

On a Greek adventure in 1997.

But naive rookie tourist mishaps aside, there is no denying the touch of paradise to the region. Cast an eye over a Santorini or Mykonos sunset and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

And yes, Greece and Cyprus have brought some of my all-time favourite entries to the Eurovision Song Contest. You know me by now – Eurovision is always somewhere in the language learning mix. Before I even began to learn in earnest, I knew a host of terms of varying usefulness. These included αγάπη (love), άνοιξη (spring), αστέρι (star), ελπίδα (hope), Φωτιά (fire), θάλασσα (sea), σταφύλι (grape) and all the other lovely things people tended to sing about in Greek at Eurovision.

Yes, songs about grapes. Food was connecting me to Greek even back then.

Greek Cobbler

In fits and starts over the years, I cobbled together what you might call holiday Greek. Although I probably never strayed beyond A1, I have always been pretty proud of that achievement. After all, it was one of my very first self-taught language projects. Very few materials were available besides phrasebooks and basic primers back then, mostly tailored to holidaymakers. But it was enough for me to Get By In Greek, as one of those 90s titles went.

Learning Greek as a purely functional, transactional language for travelling meant that there was rarely much academic rigour to that study. But as a result, when I do come to use it, even today it seems more serviceable and everyday useful than some of my more ‘serious’ languages.

Also – and this is a consequence of the performance pressure we put ourselves under with close, considered study – I think I might even be a little less nervous about speaking a language I openly admit is (very) imperfect but useable. If it works when popping to the φούρνος (bakery), that’s enough for me.

A Taste of Greek

But back to food. And there is honestly nothing quite like Greek food. It is arguably the best comfort cuisine in the world. And a chance TV encounter earlier this year stirred that long-time love of Hellenic language and culture.

Akis Petretzikis already has a big following in Greece. So the BBC show Ready, Steady, Cook must have seemed like the perfect springboard to a more international following.

And he is ready for it – he has a ton of content online, from his own recipe website to the full gamut of social media feeds, full of foodspiration. But as it stands, much of that is in Greek, tailoring for that faithful home audience.

So if you really want to access his edible world of wonder, you would do well to dig out the Ελληνικά.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Akis Petretzikis (@akis_petretzikis) on

As far as social media is concerned, live content streaming is one of the best and most accessible sources of authentic materials for language learners. Watching in real time is a brilliant way to feel connected to your target language right now, in the real world. And throughout lockdown, Akis* has been live-streaming from his kitchen regularly, making – and eating – the tastiest samples of Greek cooking for his fans. Let me tell you, it is hard not to get hooked back into the country and culture when a plateful of πορτοκαλόπιτα (orange pie) is staring you in the face.

*other Greek chefs are available. See this for starters!

Not to mention the fact that Greek, at least to my ear, comes across as one of the most clearly articulated European languages. It has a staccato, precise flow that somehow matches your perception of the word written on the page, without everything mushing together as it comes out of the mouth.

(As an aside – I have no academic backup at all to claim this of Greek. I’d love to hear of research into the clarity of Greek speech patterns if you are aware of any!)

As a perpetual Greek beginner, this makes it easier to pick out familiar words in normal, free-flowing and sometimes very complicated speech. Listening to those feeds, that handful of familiar words just pops out: γάλα (milk), φράουλα (strawberry), ψωμί (bread)… and it is so satisfying to feel like you understand. Even just a little.

Greek Revival

So whats does my Greek revival look like? Well, a bit of Duolingo now and again is a good (if predictable) start. Appropriately, food vocab one of the first things you’ll learn in many of these courses. That has been immediately useful!

Brushing up on Greek food vocab in Duolingo

You probably know what comes next, fellow language enthusiast. With the Greek bug taking hold, out came all the old books, including one of my first ever language learning purchases, Linkword Greek.

But was that enough? Of course not. My copy of Essential Greek Grammar arrived in the post today. Incorrigible, I am.

Aren’t books almost as delicious as food, though?

Has anything inspired you back to your language learning roots lately? Please let us know in the comments below or on Twitter!

Books for learning Greek

Out come the old books.

A clipboard. Image from freeimages.com.

Keep tabs on your efforts with language learning report cards

Now, if you hadn’t noticed, I am a complete control freak. But in a good way… honest! Well, most of the time. And especially when it comes to language learning.

The “good way”, of course, mostly involves tracking how regularly and effectively I learn. I am beholden to a raft of productivity tools like Evernote, Wunderlist (now Microsoft To Do) and even good, old-fashioned paper-and-pen lists to keep track.

Lists are my friends.

To do – or to have done?

Mainly, my focus has always been on forward planning. The lists I write are study to do lists on the whole – things I plan to do or feel I should be doing. But lately, I felt the need for something a bit more retrospective. A have done list, if you will.

How much am I actually achieving?

The need has been even greater under COVID-19 lockdown. Lethargy and indolence wheedle their way in during times of slowdown, and days disappear into the abyss. What is the best way to stay accountable to yourself when faced with an amorphous calendar of days in?

A really simple solution is to keep a language learning report card on each of your active and maintenance projects.

Keeping tabs

The language report card is, in short, just a retrospective diary of what you have worked on recently. I find the system works best on a monthly basis, with a separate document for each language project. Months make for quite a natural dividing line, with enough days to track and spot patterns in your learning, but not so many that planning for the next one seems aeons away.

To get started, simply fill in a few lines day by day to record the study resources you have used, and for how long. Include all your immersion activities too, even the odd five minutes listening to the radio here and there.

Engage in regular housekeeping of your language learning report cards.  Cast a frequent glance down the list throughout the month to monitor your progress and reassure yourself that yes, you are actually doing quite a lot. Or, conversely, that hmm, you might need to fit a bit of extra [language X] in tomorrow. And at the end of each month, cast an eye down the list by way of self-congratulation and preparation for how to go into the next one.

A diary of my language learning activities for Icelandic in April 2020

The simple act of keep a language learning diary can be one of the most effective for motivating yourself

Diarising your study provides a real sense of progress and satisfaction as you watch your document fill in over the month. Learning just a little every day soon adds up, and your personal report card makes it clearer than ever how much cumulative learning you are doing.

If you have multiple projects on the go – particularly maintenance languages – it helps highlight unintended neglect, too. It becomes starkly clear when you see a gap of several days pile up without touching one of your languages. We all need a bit of a study health check like that now and again.

Like some of the best language techniques, it is both exceedingly simple and brilliantly effective. It has really sorted out my Icelandic out this month after a period of drifting and coasting – my iTalki teacher noticed with the improvement.

With a new month around the corner, why not give it a go?

Language learning report cards are not the only way to journal your way to success – why not consider a target language daily diary too?