Syntax is a lot like putting the puzzle pieces together in the right order. Image from freeimages.com

Syntax Games : Working Out Your Own Rules

I’ve been happily gambolling through the Enchanted Forests of Syntax this university semester. It was the turn of that particular branch of linguistics in my taught masters programme, and probably one of my favourite courses so far. Probing how parts of sentences fit together, like chains of molecules governed by the binding rules of organic chemistry, has felt like uncovering deep secrets of the human mind.

It was a chatty and relaxed final tutorial, and the conversation turned to our tutor’s own experiences as a student of syntax. To our fascination, she explained that her introduction wasn’t through course books, but rather a kind of simulated fieldwork.

Here’s how it worked: a guest speaker of a small, undisclosed language, with very few speakers, would attend their tutorials. The students’ task was to interrogate the speaker’s native language knowledge (in English), in order to build up some generalisations about the grammar of the mystery language.

How do you say I eat an apple? What about the apple is eaten?

Gradually, the students built a picture of how syntax and morphology worked for that speaker by initial random stabs in the dark, deduction and hypothesis testing.

Solving a Syntax Mystery

Besides just sounding flipping exciting – like a linguistic detective story, or practical prep to send linguists off to decode alien languages à la Arrival –  it seems like a brilliant way to get to know really well how a new language works. As far as learning by doing goes, this kind of stuff is at the top of the tree.

And beyond the syntax classroom, there are numerous ways the technique could be used in a language learning setting. It lends itself nicely to language quest tasks, where students could be tasked with interviewing a native speaker to make a series of observations about the target language. Conversely, the teacher could mindfully choose and provide a set of sample sentences, and then challenge students to deduce the rules of Language X from them.

For instance, what can you tell about Scottish Gaelic from this set of sentences?

  • cheannaich mi bò – I bought a cow
  • reic thu bò – you sold a cow
  • tha a’ bhò mòr – the cow is big
  • an do cheannaich thu a’ bhò? – did you buy the cow?
  • ceannaich bò! – buy a cow!

At first glance, we can work out that:

  • ceannaich / cheannaich are forms of the word buy
  • it looks like the verb comes first in Gaelic, followed by the subject (Gaelic is VSO)
  •  / bhò are forms of the word cow
  • a’ is a definite article which seems to turn into bhò
  • adjectives usually go after the noun in Gaelic
  • an do is a way of asking a question in the past

…and so on. Now, that’s a lot of grammar from five sentences! And working out and listing these in a ‘rule discovery’ task is a great way to start understanding and memorising them – not to mention a great logic puzzle for mental gymming.

Glossy Examples

You can choose to provide even more information in your deduction lists, too. Linguistis often present sentences like these alongside glosses. These are simply word-for-word translations, along with extra linguistic annotations that show how the sentence works. Glosses add some valuable extra support for teaching the morphological bits and pieces alongside the syntax.

An example from Swahili:

Niliwaona watu wanasoma vitabu. I saw the people who are reading books.

Ni-li-wa-ona wa-tu wa-na-o-soma vi-tabu.
subj I.past tense.obj noun class 2 (plural) them.see noun class 2 (plural).person subj-they.present tense.relative marker (noun class I plural).read noun class 8 (plural).book

And as an extension task, students might try and produce grammatical sentences armed with the sample sentence, plus a mini extra glossary:

  • u- – subject pronoun marker ‘you’ (singular)
  • -sikia – hear
  • -nyama – animal (noun class 1/2)
  • -kimbia – run

Now, how do you say you heard the animals running?

A Pint of Syntax

Admittedly, it’s the language geek in me that thinks you could have endless fun with this. But even if it never makes it to the secondary classroom, it makes a perfect game for a festive linguaphile get-together. Proper linguists’ pub quiz fare.

Just remember to invite me along!

A fault line. Learn to love yours in language learning! Image from freeimages.com

Finding Fault : Learning from Past Performance

Going through some old files the other day, I came across a bunch of Icelandic MP3 recordings I’d made for an old 30 Day Speaking Challenge. A long time ago.

Needless to say, when I played them back, I didn’t feel too impressed. The accent, the grammatical errors, the stoppy-starty delivery. Not my finest work I tut-tutted.

But, listening on through gritted teeth, something started to happen. I found myself silently correcting the mistakes. I was almost willing handy hints for improvement back in time to that previous version of myself.

Fine to Be At Fault!

Old, imperfect language learning work is never anything to feel shame or embarrassment over. Most obviously, it shows us how far we’ve come.

But as ‘faulty’ resources, they’re actually far from useless. They give us chance to review and remedy mistakes that we were prone to in the past. Yes, they do crystallise errors. But as such, they also serve as great anti-examples of language use, as well as remind us that we no longer make them.

The same goes for non-language material, too. Some years ago, I made some ‘talking revision notes’ for a social science module I was taking with the Open University. Listening back to them, beyond the initial cringe, I ended up in a kind of mental conversation with myself: lots of “yes, but what about…” and “that’s one way to look at it, but…“. It is such a great way to interrogate past knowledge with a present outlook.

Finding Fault : A Do-Over

Something you can do, if your previous faults annoy you too much, is a do-over. Rerecord your speaking challenges. Rewrite your previous notes. Create fresh summaries of your learning material including everything you’ve learnt since. But keep both old and new handy as a testament to your progress.

If you’re tempted to delete your old recordings, or trash your old notebooks, pause to think: what can I still learn about my journey from these? Be generous to yourself – to a fault.

Global charity organisations are a great way to tap into target language and support good causes too. Image from freeimages.com

Sweet Charity : Supporting Good Causes Multilingually

An unexpected source of Spanish popped up in my inbox this week. It was a campaign video from Smile Train, a wonderful charity taking cleft lip and palate surgery and support around the world. The video featured the story of little Sebastián Álvarez and his parents, as they navigated the challenges of early life with a cleft.

Smile Train is an organisation very close to my heart, since I was one of those cleft babies – but lucky enough to grow up in a country where repairs are routine. It makes my heart sing to see the charity sharing that opportunity with those who might otherwise never get the support they need.

First and foremost, posts like these give us that heartwarming sense that there are good people doing good things in the world. We certainly need some of that lately. But it’s also a reminder of how powerful it can be to combine language learning with your passions for activism and goodwill. It cross-references your worlds, and paints another corner of it with your target language.

Plug In to Multilingual Charity Initiatives

Smile Train in Spanish found me this time. But many global charities, like Smile Train, Cancer Research or the WWF, have information sites catering for many different regions and languages. A quick Google, like WWF España, for instance, is a great place to start looking for them.

Most also offer newsletter signup in those languages. Newsletter campaigns tend more and more to be packed with rich media, serving short and snappy update videos direct to your inbox. Like hacking your socials to drip-feed target language effortlessly, this is another way to lock in language practice regularly and unthinkingly.

As well as show support for your favourite causes.

What’s not to like?

Lastly, remember that there’s more than one way to support your charity. If you’re not in a position to donate, just signing up and sharing on social media is still valuable awareness-raising.

And if you’re doing that in your language learning social channels, you’re helping fellow learners, too!

Where to Start?

Need some inspiration? Here is my unapologetically unimpartial list for some examples! But charity is personal – make it your own.

Amnesty International France Germany  
Cancer Research Charities Institut Curie (France) DFKZ (Germany) CNIO (Spain)
Smile Train Latin America    
WWF France Germany Spain
Icelandic horses. Image from freeimages.com.

Learning Icelandic and Norwegian Together : Close Buddies and False Friends

There are advantages and disadvantages to learning very closely related languages together. And despite the benefits generally outweighing the snags, false friends are probably the most irksome spot of that downside. Icelandic and Norwegian are one such pairing that seems really popular in polyglot circles lately.

Because of the conservatism of Icelandic, tackling the two often feels like studying contemporary and ‘historical’ Norse side by side (although we need to be careful not to fall into that trap – Icelandic is a modern language that has been developing from Old Norse as long as Norwegian has).

That closeness gives us plenty of hooks to transfer knowledge. For example, Iceland þ (th) will show up as Norwegian t where the latter has inherited the same word:

🇮🇸 þreyttur – 🇳🇴 trøtt (tired)

But elsewhere, even when there is a really transparent cognate pair, meaning and use have drifted in the sands of time.

Traps to Trip You Up

One subtle cognate slip-up occurs with semsom, the relativiser in clauses such as the book that I read. Icelandic and Norwegian agree as far as that is concerned:

🇮🇸 bókin sem ég las – 🇳🇴 boka som jeg leste

But that’s all they can agree on. Firstly, sem is not optional in Icelandic, whereas Norwegian can do as English does and simply say boka jeg leste.

What’s more, they also fall out when it comes to the other, more prepositional use, as in like a cat:

🇮🇸 eins og köttur – 🇳🇴 som en katt

That’s, like, a bit tricky.

Taking a Liking

Likewise, líkur / lik (alike) don’t always map onto each other like for like. While ‘they are alike‘ can be:

🇮🇸 þeir eru líkar – 🇳🇴 de er like

…in Icelandic, you’re more often than not going to come up against that eins again to mean ‘alike’:

🇮🇸 þeir eru eins

As eins clearly derives from the number one, it’s not hard to connect this to phrases like one and the same in English, or en og samme in Norwegian. Still, Icelandic uses eins pretty much everywhere that Norwegian uses like, so it’s another distinction to mark on the map.

Add to the fact that Icelandic uses cognate líka for also (også in Norwegian), and it has even more potential to be a confuser.

Do You Really Like It?

And like it or not, we’re not finished with like yet. It actually turns out that it really likes to mess with us. The Old Norse verb líka has ended up in both languages (just as English ended up with like from a more distant common ancestor). However, in Icelandic, líka is used in purely impersonal expressions:

🇮🇸 mér líkar það (lit. to me likes/pleases it)

…whereas in Norwegian, it works just the way like does in English, with the liker as the subject, and a direct object as the liked thing:

🇳🇴 jeg liker det (I like it)

Not only that: while expressions with líka in Icelandic do translate as like, they’re not the most colloquial way to express liking any more, and may come across as rather archaic. These days, you’re better off with a phrase using skemmtilegur (amusing, entertaining) like:

🇮🇸 mér finnst það skemmtilegt (to me finds-itself it amusing)

Admittedly, these quirks can seem less than amusing as a beginner learner, to be sure.

Crazy House

Funnily enough, it’s the realm of house and home where a little cluster of words diverges quite radically in meaning. Perhaps it’s not surprising for words relating to everyday living arrangements; as customs and practices change, old terms get repurposed and attached to ever more differing concepts. But stand by: this set seems like it went through a tumble dryer.

Norwegian rom will be familiar to English speakers as the cognate room. It meant largely the same in Old Norse – any room or internal space. But in Icelandic, it can now have the meaning bed. There’s quite an interesting theory for how that shift happened here.

Meanwhile, Norwegian seng, which means bed, is cognate with Icelandic sæng – which means duvet. And Norwegian dyne, which is duvet, materialises as Icelandic dýna – which means mattress. Utter bedroom confusion (as if deciding which side to sleep on wasn’t hard enough already).

Honorable Mentions

There are, predictably, plenty of these pitfalls between the languages – far too many for a short article. But amongst the hotchpotch of favourite falseish friends between Icelandic and Norwegian are two more favourites of mine.

Firstly, the word lag can mean layer in both languages. In Icelandic, however, it can also mean song. It’s notably a word in the title of one of Iceland’s most successful Eurovision entries, the boppy Eitt lag enn (one more song) of 1990. In Norwegian, on the other hand, it can mean teamOne more team just doesn’t sound as fun, does it?

Along similar lines, we have grein (spelt gren in some varieties of Norwegian), which means branch to both Icelanders and Norwegians. But in Icelandic, the very same word is used for an article in a newspaper. A case of a word branching out, perhaps?

Variety Show

It’s all fun and games, of course, and one of the reasons it can be so fascinating to learn languages within the same grein of a family tree. For one thing, you end up collecting juicy etymological trivia in droves (the kind of stuff you can spin out for an upbeat language blog, for instance).

But a final point for fellow dual learners concerns the variety of Norwegian you learn. If, instead of vanilla Bokmål, you study Nynorsk, or any of the traditional dialects of Norway under that umbrella, you might well come across a few more cognates and similarities to Icelandic. Bokmål, as the heir to Riksmål and the imported Dano-Norwegian of centuries past, has levelled out some of the more Norsey features of traditional norsk. Dialects often preserve these beautifully. If you’re up for exploring this further, then a good place to start is NRK’s language programme Språksnakk, which regularly answers questions on local vocab features that bear more than a passing resemblance to islenska.

Do you have similar experiences with this or any other pair of languages? Let us know your favourite drifting cognates in the comments!

A dog with big ears. Phonotactics is what governs which sounds sound 'right' together in a language. Image from freeimages.com

Phonotactics Physio : When Sounds Sound Wrong

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my ongoing linguistics adventure, it’s that there’s a fancy word for everything in science, and linguistics is no exception. Welcome, phototactics (from Greek, roughly sound arranging).

The phonotactics of a language govern how different sounds fit together within it: which can occur next to each other, which can start a word, which can end one, and so on. It’s thanks to the phonotactics of English, for example, that we don’t have words like ngrasn.

Unsurprisingly, then, it’s always fun and games when the phonotactics of your native language square up against those of your target language.

Phonotactic Fallout

Mismatched phonotactics result in the distinctive features of often stereotyped non-native accents. For instance, Spanish-speaking learners of English will often first add an e- before words beginning with sp- and st-. The reason? The phonotactics of Spanish don’t allow those combinations word-initially, so they’re anathema to Spanish ears. By contrast, cognates of English sp- and st- words in Spanish already have that e- built in: especial, especie, and even España itself.

Similarly, English learners of Modern Greek might have issues with particular clusters of sounds. The word mortal, for example, is θνητός (thnitós). When was the last time you heard an English word containing thn, at the start, middle or even end? Less alien is perhaps Greek ξ (ks), as there are plenty of English examples containing it: box, exit, exaggerate. In Greek, however, it very commonly occurs at the start of a word; ξέρω (ksero, I know), ξέχασα (ksehasa, I forgot), ξυπνώ (ksipno, I wake up). Early learners of Greek are often tempted to add a quick little schwa vowel between the sounds, like kǝsero for ‘ksero. The initial ks is so strange to English ears that we pronounce Greek borrowing ξυλόφωνο (ksylophone) as ‘zylophone’ to pander to our own phonotactics.

Phonotactics Physio

So how to cope with wildly different phonotactics in your target language?

Getting used to creating sounds unusual in your native language involves training muscle memory. Physio for phonotactics, if you will. That means practising individual words, as well as undertaking more involved speech tasks like shadowing.

It also helps to identify cases where your native language does come pretty close to the target language sound, noting that it might happen between words rather than within them. Take a couple of Polish words thrust into the topical limelight recently: szczepionka (vaccine) and szczepić (to vaccinate). That initial szcz, or /ʂt͡ʂ/ as Wiktionary so accurately puts it, simply doesn’t occur within any single word in English. The closest English gets is with broadly similar sounds across word boundaries, like wash cherries. But say that out loud a few times, concentrating on the sh_ch, and you get an idea of Polish szcz that you can transfer to your Polish pronunciation.

Tackle such words repeatedly, enlisting the help of your iTalki tutor or similar in topical chat related to them. Gradually, you will start building up a target language phonotactics  that doesn’t depend on your own native language judgements.

 

A brick wall, doing what brick walls do best - offering resistance! Image from freeimages.com

Cross-Language Tactics Resistance : Doing What Works – Everywhere

Sometimes, we know what’s best for us. But we still don’t do it. It’s a frustrating matter of resistance.

I notice this a lot cross-language. It’s that realisation that I’ve had great successes in some learning projects, but fail to carry over what I did right to another.

I think the issue can be that I tend to ‘bubble off’ a new language learning project into its own mental microcosm. And that’s quite necessary, of course; it helps maintain separation, limit interference and keep me sane as a polyglot learner.

But it also sets up brick walls that make it hard to transfer good practices as an automatic habit.

The Great Greek-Polish Divide…

I’ve been active with Greek and Polish concurrently since the first 2020 lockdowns (Polish a lot longer as a continuous projectGreek a resumption project from years back). However, with pretty much the same lesson-per-week pace, I feel conversationally fluent in Greek, but perennially clumsy in Polish. I gab away happily with my Greek tutor about all manner of nonsense. Polish, on the other hand, can still feel like wading through ungrammatical, uncolloquial treacle.

I’m tempted to put it down to the fact that Greek is, perhaps, simply an easier language to learn than Polish. Taking an external, objective measure, though, this doesn’t seem to be an excuse to let me off the hook. The FSI, in its difficulty ranking for learners, classes Greek and Polish both as Level III, or hard languages.

So what am I doing so differently?

It is mostly down to my different attitude towards learning materials in the two languages. For Polish, I try to use serious textbooks. For reading material, I aim for the news.

Now, I barely read the news in Greek; I follow TV chefs on Instagram instead (and pop culture is the healthiest of all guilty pleasures for language learners, of course). I don’t spend a lot of time with textbooks or grammars, either. Rather, I just do a few minutes of Glossika and Duolingo every day. Glossika in particular has been transformative; just blasting my brain repeatedly with everyday sentence structure has produced amazing results.

Similar “brief blast” treatment comes in the form of Instagram accounts which post short, snappy quotes in Greek. It’s just enough to activate the Greek brain and impart a couple of new words without the overload of hefty reading. X and Y are recommended for fellow learners.

Chat Habits

The nature of my chat – or what I want to chat about – differs similarly. In Polish, I started out with my head stuck in serious discussion mode. I feel I should be talking about weighty, lofty matters. Where that idea comes from, I do not know; but I do know that it hobbles my fluency, much as a bunch of ‘should do’ norms stop us from reading what makes us happy in the target language.

In Greek, my conversation classes are usually without formal structure, and I ramble quite happily about some very low-brow stuff indeed. Maybe it’s because Greek was a revival project under lockdown, so the stakes felt lower. I believe we all develop a different persona for each of our target languages, and Greek Rich is certainly a lot more laid back.

But even looking beyond Greek, there are healthy chat habits I have in other languages that I need to carry over to Polish. In Gaelic, for example, I have a regular, lively get-together with fellow local learners, albeit, temporarily, a Zoom meet rather than our pre-pandemic pub chat. I still don’t have a huge vocabulary, but I use what I have, and it works. Our ‘no English’ rule is fantastic practice for flexible thinking as a fledgling A2 speaker, forcing us to express what we want to say in alternative, economical ways. By contrast, in Polish, I probably tried to learn too many isolated vocabulary items too soon. A case of trying too hard, too soon; I’m spoilt for choice and a worse speaker for it.

Resistance Busting

Good news for me: I am redressing the balance between my Greek and Polish now.

Thanks to some extra group classes laid on by my Polish tutor, I’m getting more of that informal, friendly chat that bolstered my Greek so much. I’ve discovered cheesy soap Pierwsza miłość (first love), which is filling my Polish ventricles with light-hearted nonsense. I’ve cut back on going too hard, too serious with the dreaded news. And I’ve started to add a few minutes of Polish Glossika to my daily tactics (even though it feels, oddly, like I’m cheating on my Greek there).

Other remedies are harder to source unless someone points them out, of course. For instance, I’m still looking for fun and snappy Polish quote accounts to follow (any recommendations welcome!). And I’d still love a shot in the arm for my Polish pop culture socials generally.

But, happily, I’m turning the tide. Polish is a language I care about very much; it’s waiting for me to break that resistance and benefit from the techniques my other languages have enjoyed for so long.

Which of your languages seem resistant to the success you’ve enjoyed with others? And how do you try and overcome that? Let us know in the comments!

Five stars - what you hope to get from your TV picks in a foreign language! Image from freeimages.com

Joyful, Joyful TV for Maintenance Language Impetus

I type this fresh from the jubilance of seeing my favourite Stjernekamp (Star Fight) contestant sail through to the final of the popular Norwegian TV series. Alexandra Rotan, known to many as one third of Eurovision act Keiino, sang her heart out and won a place in the final two.

Watching light entz and pop culture in your target language is always a popular tactic in polyglot circles, and for good reason: it’s just plain fun. I spotted a recent #langtwt tweet cheekily polling people’s favourite ‘trash’. And while I’m far too nice to call it that, I do get the sentiment – it’s content which is far from high-brow, but unthinkingly, unchallengingly cosy and feel-good.

So it is with the wonderfully joyful Stjernekamp.

The Sun Always Shines on (Target Language) TV

The thing is, I’ve not been making a deliberate effort to get more of it into my life lately. Norwegian is one of my most beloved and strongest foreign languages, but currently, I’m just maintaining it rather than working actively on it. The reason it keeps budging its way in, hitching a ride on Stjernekamp and other vehicles, is impetus.

Back in my active learning phase, I’d done the groundwork already. I’d followed norsk favourites like Stjernekamp, Skal vi danse and Maskorama on all my social media channels, filling my daily scrolls with target language. I’d downloaded on-demand apps from Norway, and set up notifications for all those shows. And they’re all still there, popping up in my line of sight, without any effort on my part.

And that is the very essence of maintenance.

Keeping It Light

Granted, it’s getting easier and easier to do this today. A click of the Subscribe button, and you’ve forged a pipeline supplying language input 24/7. With international TV franchises, a lot of that input is warmingly familiar, too.

But a word of caution: I’ve found the tone of what you choose really colours your attitude towards the language. Stjernekamp – much like other musical reality shows, like the BBC’s Strictly – is a thing of pure joy. Frivolous, fanciful fun. In my Norwegian fallow season, it has become what the language is to me. My heart leaps a little when a notification pops up.

On the other hand, for some languages, I ignored those instincts. I added – gulp – serious news feeds instead. Now, I’ll backtrack a little here, as I’ve sung the praises of adding current affairs feeds in the past. That’s because in some cases, it does work a treat. For instance, many apps, like NRK’s news service, allow you to select the topics to be alerted on. Science and technology? Tick for me. And other services, like podcast series News in Slow and Radio Prosty Polski, break the stories down into short, manageable chunks.

On the other hand, the Polish TVP Info app just gives you everything in all its shocking, miserable detail. And, especially lately, everything in the news can be a bit… hmm… depressing? That’s not to mention the elevated style of news articles and frequent pomposity of style. Give me singing, dancing celebs over that any day. Needless to say, I dejectedly swipe away most of those TVP alerts. I clearly need to spend more time streamlining my Polish apps and socials to redefine what Poland is to me in a much happier light.

The moral here, of course, is be mindful about your media. It can make the difference between switching on and off to your target language(s).

What pop culture media helps you stay switched on to your target languages during a maintenance phase? Let us know in the comments!

 

Books for restoring!

Restoring Books at Home

If you hadn’t noticed from my recent blogging fervour, restoring second hand language books is my latest hobby obsession. There’s something beautiful about rescuing discarded treasures from forgotten bookshelves, and making them useful again. Plus, they’re dead cheap. It’s a hobby that can easily become addictive thanks to the bargains to be had.

That said, if you want a smart, tidy bookshelf, some of those books will need a little tender loving care. When first faced with slightly grubby, neglected and bashed about titles, my first thought was: how on earth do you clean a book? I mean, plain old soap and water isn’t going to help matters here; nobody wants to read a damp Teach Yourself.

Thankfully, paper-friendly clean-up isn’t too hard at all, and you may well have many of the tools at home already. Here are some of the best methods I’ve found for brushing up my ever-increasing hoard of yesteryear’s language learning resources.

By way of disclaimer, I’m no expert – just a book lover who has Googled this stuff endlessly over the past couple of months! If you’ve come across different advice or have other book-restoring tips, please let me know in the comments.

That’s the Spirit!

My number one, can’t-do-without item for sprucing up tatty books is surgical spirit. It’s excellent for cleaning glossy-cover paperbacks for a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s not caustic, like bleach-based or similar solutions
  2. It evaporates quickly, so doesn’t drench and damage pages
  3. It has strong antibacterial properties

For covers, I dampen a kitchen towel with some spirit and wipe outwards from the middle of the covers to the edges. Always be careful not to scuff or over-dampen the card edge. Done well, this can make glossy colour picture covers positively pop.

Teach Yourself Polish book cover

Teach Yourself Polish, 1993 – now with added shine

For book edges, you can apply some spiritual cleaning by switching to a dab technique. Moisten your cloth or towel, and simply pat the sides of the book down slightly, taking care not to rub too vigorously.

Boots do a 500ml bottle of surgical spirit for just over a fiver, and it lasts for ages.

Fighting Foxes

Foxing – those little brown spots on the sides of books – used to give me the heebie-jeebies. I assumed they were organic marks, like mould, which might spread to other books.

Fortunately, foxing is almost always completely harmless. It’s generally the result of reactions between paper chemicals and air, amongst other things, more or less akin to rust on metal. Granted, they’re not the most aesthetically pleasing, so you wouldn’t be blamed for wanting to improve the appearance of foxed books.

I’ve had great results by gently filing away fox marks with a nail file (also a great remedy for yellowing book edges). Note that it does take some time and requires some care, being a destructive process, if only mildly so. For good measure, I dab the filed edge with a cloth slightly moistened with surgical spirit afterwards.

Book restoring - fox marks on an old book

Foxing – before filing

Book restoring : after filing fox marks away

Foxing – after filing

Getting Things Straight

Perhaps one of the most common types of damage you’ll come across is page creasing and dog ears. It’s tempting to go straight for these with you hands to try and uncurl them, but this can cause even more damage and breakage if the crease is old and worn in, or the paper is thin.

Instead, get yourself an egg-cup of warm water and a cotton bud. Dampen the bud slightly, and use it to tease out the dog-ear and roll it flat. It’s a much gentler way to get things straightened out.

If you’ve had to do a lot of de-creasing, you might also find it helpful to press your book back into shape. You can use boards (like flower-pressing boards, for example) and a vice for this, but it’s much simpler to leave it under a bigger, heavier book for a day or two.

Holding Your Nose

If there’s one rogue smell you notice most on a second hand book, it’s the dreaded smoky house. I’ve had a couple of books that quite obviously spent a lot of time around tobacco, and if that’s not your thing, it can be quite off-putting.

Luckily, you may well have the magic treatment in your kitchen cupboards already. Bicarbonate of soda or baking powder work an absolute treat on smelly items. Seal the book with a spoonful of powder in a freezer bag, and leave it for 2-4 weeks. It’s honestly astonishing how effectively it minimises odours.

Cover Up

After all that hard work making your old books beautiful, you want to keep them that way. And plastic book jackets are the way to go! They’re available at loads of places online, as well as major bookshops – I’ve been picking them up for around 60p each at Blackwells.

They come in a range of sizes to fit standard book dimensions. As you work with more and more books, you will become geekily acquainted with those measurements. Say “Teach Yourself” to me, and I’ll fire back 198 millimetres! like a shot. (Told you I was becoming obsessed.)

Plastic book covers

Plastic paperback covers

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat…

Unfortunately, there are bigger nasties than a bit of foxing and yellowing. Sadly, some books end up in much worse states than these techniques can remedy. But all is not lost, and a bit of Googling throws up all sorts of heavy-duty book rescue tips.

This post – pictures not for the squeamish! – shares a particularly impressive restoration story about a cache of roach-soiled tomes. And if you can stomach taking on truly filthy material as a restoration project, innovative cleaning techniques range from putting a book in the oven on a low heat to treat infestations, to using fancy UV-C sterilisation boxes. Thankfully, the big eBay book sellers don’t sell anything quite so unsettling, and I’ve never had to turn to these extreme techniques. I’ll think I’ll stick with standard scuffs, dust and dog ears, personally.

But it’s good to know that even the most unfortunate volumes can be saved!

The Spanish flag

Resurrecting Spanish : How Old Languages Never Really Die

I’m writing this post, rather excitingly, from sunny Valencia. Yes, cheap EasyJet city breaks have returned! And this brief Spanish jaunt is particularly pertinent, as it’s my first trip overseas since the pandemic started. A promising sign the world is opening up again, and I’m filled with gratitude at that. Monumental.

It’s also notable for being my long-overdue to Spain – and to Spanish.

I’m going back to my roots with this one. Spanish was one of the first languages I chose to learn (rather than have chosen for me by the school curriculum). As a young school lad, I started learning with the long-forgotten BBC textbook España Viva in readiness for a holiday with my mum. The (distinctly 80s-ish) pictures of Spanish day life piqued my appetite to experience it for myself, to immerse myself, to connect with it. And what a thrill it was – that trip is one of my earliest memories of the pure joy of communicating in a foreign language.

Spanish Steps

By coincidence not long afterwards, my school laid on a special “spare time”, two-year after-school GCSE Spanish course for keen linguists, probably to gain a well-needed GCSE league table boost. I lapped it up, and then just kept it going – all the way to college and university. I was Rich, the German and Spanish scholar. It was part of my identity, what people knew me as.

But then, I graduated – and Spanish stopped.

Of course, the signs were there that I was drifting away from the Hispanic. My Spanish had always played second fiddle – albeit a loud one – to German at university. Although I loved studying the language, I chose to spend my year abroad in Austria as I wanted so ardently to study the dialects there. Then, after finals, I fell straight into a German-speaking job.

I had no Spanish-speaking friends, no contacts in Spain, and no real footholds in Spanish pop culture to keep it regularly in my life. And with each passing year that separated me from uni, I found fewer and fewer reasons to keep running with it. Even after retraining as a teacher, the only jobs I could find with my stronger German were teaching it alongside French, not Spanish. Ironically, that very poor third-placed French of mine became more important for work than the language I spoke, once upon a time, quite fluently. It seemed like my Spanish was doomed to oblivion.

But then, Valencia – and it was like an old friend turning up on my doorstep after years apart.

Practising my Spanish on market day in ValenciaPractising my Spanish on market day in Valencia!

Why do we let go of languages?

As my story shows, our connection to language may wax and wane for all sorts of reasons. It may just be, as with me, that life takes you in a different direction. There could also be cultural, or political reasons that your target language country no longer feels like a home from home.

On the other hand, external forces can nudge us, too. Knockbacks from others, like unforgiving native speakers in the real world (as opposed to the cocoon of education), can frustrate the effort to keep up your level. I remember feeling horribly deflated when told that my Spanish accent was “a bit non-native” in some recordings I did for a language game in the mid-noughties. Just as well I have my German, I thought. When feedback isn’t coming from a tactful, supportive teacher, the no-frills nature of real-life feedback can feel barbed.

Going Easy on Yourself

That said, I was probably taking myself far too seriously, back then. I’m supposed to be good at Spanish, I told myself. If my accent is bad after years of study, what’s the point? And it’s exactly that kind of destructive perfectionism that can wreck our relationship with a language, too.

Thankfully, time has tempered that perfectionist streak. Back in Spain, I don’t feel that pressure to be good because I’m supposed to be! any more. And, with a more relaxed approach, I’ve found Spanish coming back to me more than willingly.

And guess what? Nobody commented on my funny accent. Everybody understood me. And I understood them back.

I might just have rekindled that old friendship.

In many ways, it’s hardly surprising that a trip abroad reawakens an old passion for a language. The excitement of on-the-ground immersion is what keeps many of us fuelled. But it’s worth remembering that old languages never die; they’re just off doing other things, waiting for you to get back in touch in your own time.

Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

Going Old School with Language Learning Flash Cards

You might have noticed that I’m partial to a cheat sheet in my language comings and goings. There’s only so much you can hold in short-term memory before a speaking class, and having a scaffold to hand – even gamifying it, where possible – can be a boon. Crib notes, cheat sheets, flash cards – they’re par for the course in language learning. And everyone seems to have their own favourite label for them.

Now, my first thought when making these things is: which app is best for this? But to be honest, I’ve been a little apped out of late. Sometimes, the tech can take the focus while the language takes a back seat, and that defeats the whole object. Too often I’ve spent time faffing with note settings and layout before getting down to the main event.

Flash Cards on Cue

As if on cue, our evening class Gaelic tutor recently prompted the group to dispense with the tech and go old school. Our homework task was simply to create paper crib notes for the material we were finding trickiest, and set them in prominent places around the home. She calls them ‘bingo cards‘, by the way, proving that everybody in the world does seem to have a different term for these linguistic comfort blankets.

So, out came the colouring pens. I’m a fiend for new stationery – a predilection I’ve noticed is shared by a lot of us bookish linguaphiles. I had a fresh pack of Staedtlers just begging to feel useful. I knew it – they weren’t just an impulse buy, after all.

The Magic in the Doing

As with all these things, the magic is in the doing, as much as the result. Investing a bit of time and creative energy into your resources doesn’t half help you cosy up to your language. I was pretty loved up in my index card creations and their technicolour irregular verb decorations on one side, and English prompts on the other:

Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

Homemade Scottish Gaelic flash cards with irregular verb paradigms

I must admit, I didn’t overthink (or even plan) them. Rather than faff, I just had fun. The colours don’t have any special significance apart from separating tenses from each other. But it doesn’t matter – they say little things please little minds, but I was quite content to keep my mind little and my thinking nice and simple with them.

The verdict? They’ve already helped me in Gaelic convo starters – a lot.

Sometimes old school really is the best school – especially when it provides an excuse to buy more stationery.