Scotland's Census 2022 - now including Gaelic as a separate question.

Operationalising Gaelic : Census Questions As A Political Leg-Up

It’s census time in Scotland! Letter are dropping through letterboxes across the land, inviting citizens to submit their details for the national record. And there’s bit of a buzz about a certain question. Gaelic learners are chomping at the bit to answer it.

All respondents will be self-reporting their knowledge of the language across the four skills. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, admittedly, leaving aside issues of level and competence. But its inclusion carries a lot of significance for the community of speakers and learners. So much so, that there’s been a concerted Tick the Box! drive to encourage skills reporting.

Scotland's Census 2022 and the very welcome Gaelic question!

Scotland’s Census 2022 and the very welcome Gaelic question!

So what is so encouraging about a simple language skills question?

Well, a census is never simply a neutral fact-finding mission. The very act of asking a question about some thing has a power beyond simple information-gathering. It lends political shape and weight to the item under study. Defining something as worthy of counting – and, by extension, of governance – affords it a life of its own, out of the shadows. There’s a Foucauldian underside to that, of course. Shadier concerns have used census-taking to carve up the world better to divide and subjugate it. But, turned on its head, mindful question design can be a tool to shine a light on groups that need support.

Canvassing Gaelic as a special, separate skill anchors it to the ‘set of things that are relevant to Scottishness’ in the public mind, as well as respecting the existence of speakers and learners in Scottish society. As language planners try to shore up and reverse the retreat of Gaelic from public life in Scotland, operationalising the language like this, so publicly, helps to pull it back into general consciousness.

And importantly, this plays out amongst census respondents who might otherwise never notice the presence of the language in everyday discourse.

Shoring Up Gaelic Support

Otherwise, how the census question plays out positively on a wider scale is tied to the eventual number-crunching. For a start, self-reporting second-language speakers add to the numbers of existing native Gaels. After disappointing numbers in 2011, this, we all hope, will give a much sturdier picture of a language in revival (fingers crossed). Whatever part this plays in the debate on native versus neo-Gaelic, a growing community must surely be a good sign.

And numbers matter. They are why, amongst other things, it is far from futile to add to Duolingo’s Ukrainian learner tally right now. Large numbers signify support. And as cynical a view of governance as it may seem, pressure from a supportive public garners actions and resources from power.

A sufficient groundswell can trigger political initiatives such as a recent call for more Gaelic at the Scottish Parliament, for example. Likewise, it can get a ball rolling in terms of everyday, out-and-about visibility. Tesco’s recent promotion of the language to star position on Stornoway store signs is a great example. None of this happens without the prompting of public interest, or the proof that stats provide for it.

In that spirit, I very proudly self-reported my Gàidhlig skills this week. And I hope many thousands of others will be doing the same.

Confidence boost - my participant number in the Commonwealth Game auditions

Confidence Self-Help : Exposure Therapy Edition!

If you didn’t already know (and I shout it from the rooftops so boldly that it kind of undoes the message), I’m a naturally shy linguist. In a community where confidence seems like a necessary prerequisite for being successful – at least in speaking – it can sometimes feel like a right old hobbling.

But sometimes the best way to tackle these things is head on.

In classic exposure therapy mode, I had the chance to hurl myself headlong at my social anxieties this week. I registered to attend a mass audition for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games 2022 in Birmingham. I hear your gasps; yes, I kind of surprised myself, too!

Confidence boost - my participant number in the Commonwealth Game auditions

Confidence boost – my participant placard from the Commonwealth Game auditions

In terms of personal exposure, this was up there. As well as group dance routines, there were some pretty challenging individual performance tasks that took me far, far out of my everyday comfort zone. I had to think on my feet with each instruction, steeling myself to be entertaining in front of a hundred strangers.

Confidence – Fight or Flight!

In the heat of the moment, though, our brains have a special trick: do or die. I knew I had to do something – the alternative was to run away, and I didn’t fancy that look much. So I stifled my inner wobbles and chucked everything I had into it.

By the end of the audition, I was brimming. Whether or not I get a part in the live show, it was one of the most enjoyable, energetic evenings I’ve spent in a while!

That rollercoaster of emotions felt so similar to tackling shyness as a language learner. I got the distinct feeling that the whole experience had given me an overall confidence boost, and that can only have a positive knock-on effect for my foreign language confidence, too. It’s made me determined to keep seizing similar opportunities that come my way.

And apart from keeping an eye open for one-off events like this, there are plenty of practice grounds out there: language chat clubs, book groups, music jam nights, choirs and more. Meetup is a great place to start.

Put yourself out there and practise that confident self. Your languages will thank you for it.

Incidentally, if you’re around Birmingham and fancy a shot, the Commonwealth Games team is still looking for volunteer performers and more: click here for details!

The flag of Ukraine flying in the wind. Image by

Small Gestures, Great Cause : Ukraine and Cultural Solidarity

Like many, I’m finding it hard to think about anything but the appalling invasion of Ukraine right now.

It’s a plight that is breaking countless hearts, prompting the universal question what can we do to help? Not everyone is able to attend a rally. Many don’t have the means to donate funds.

But something sad I’ve noticed around #langtwt this week is the number of people questioning the little gestures, those involving cultural exploration and language learning. Many (including me) felt compelled to express solidarity by starting, or returning to, the Duolingo Ukrainian course, for example.

To language lovers, it feels like instinctual solidarity. But naturally, it triggers self-doubt over tokenism and futility.

On the face of it, yes, it feels achingly inadequate in terms of stopping bombs and bullets.

But amidst all the helplessness, anything that creates solidarity and increases understanding is worth pursuing. And, more importantly, so is anything that counters Putin’s faulty reasoning on the existence of a unique, authentic Ukrainian statehood and right to exist as a distinct cultural entity.

Because those numbers add up. On the first day after the invasion, course enrolment numbers leapt by thousands. They continue to rise.

In an age of algorithms boosting visibility, those extra thousands mean something. They pay a respect, through numbers, to the identity – and right to existence and self-determination – of that group.

So it may feel like a tiny thing. But those little acts of validation do carry weight.

For sure, the grander gestures are important. Donate, if you are able. Make your voice heard by attending rallies. Write to your local representatives to encourage action.

But don’t discount those small acts, either.

As scaffold builds a building, sentence frames help build your foreign language competency. Image from

Sentence Frames – A Home to Hang Your Words

Idly keying out some Duolingo practice phrases this weekend, an interesting sentence popped up in Polish. Kiedy śpię, to nie mówię. When I sleep, I do not speak. Hmm, I thought. That looks like a good addition to my Polish sentence frames.

Sentence frames are short, recyclable chunks of language with repurposable slots you can swap items in and out of. The idea comes from primary literacy teaching, namely the writing frame. Early schoolers support their writing skills by memorising reusable chunks with customisable blanks.

To get started on your own, all you need is a beady eye to spot sentences you can strip down for potential reusable frames. Take my Polish sentence, for example. Removing the content stuff, we’re left with:

Kiedy X, to Y. When X, (then) Y.

At this point, it helps me to read the stripped-down sentence aloud, substituting X and Y for a meaningful mmmm…. Kiedy mmmm, to mmmm. It sounds daft, but it prepares the brain for step two.

Doing Your Lines

The next thing to do is go to town with it. Like Bart Simpson (semi-)dutifully doing his lines on the board, scribble out a whole bunch of sentences using the same pattern. Slot in whatever comes to mind to start cementing it into memory. When I go to town, I visit my friend. When I get home, I turn on the TV. And so on, and so on. Soon that pattern will be tripping off the tongue as easily as a native phrase.

The reason these sentence frames are so valuable is that they supply that native phrase structure, rather than unordered, abstract dictionary knowledge. Instead of fumbling to piece sentences together from scratch, you have something to hang words onto before you start speaking.

They’re also easy to mine in your day-to-day language contact. You can spot potential speaking frame fodder anywhere and everywhere. Duolingo throws plenty of short, snappy examples at you, for instance. But billboards, TV ads and social media posts are excellent sources too.

Short ‘n’ Simple(ish)

Just like writing frames, sentence frames work best when they are simple. Some might only have a single slot, but represent a really frequent but language-particular pattern, like the Gaelic:

‘S e X a th’ ann. It is an X.

Others can be equally short but a little more complex, fitting in a third slot, like the German:

Wenn ich X hätte, würde ich Y Z. If I had X, I would Z Y.

Note the word order there. By memorising that frame, you’re drilling that very particular verb-final order of German subordinate clauses, too. That’s a lot of useful material packed into a nice cosy space.

Wherever you find them, however you drill them, sentence frames are a great tool to have in your language learning toolbox. For sure, it’s a case when doing your lines can be very good for you.



A page from Hippocrene Greek Basic Course - joining the dots, I realised it's one of the resources available on Live Lingua

Joining the (Typewritten) Dots

Sometimes you don’t end up joining the dots until years after you see the clues.

I had a bookcase tidy-up and sort-out this week. In one dark and forlorn corner of my shelves, I came across this unusual little volume:

I bought it in the early noughties, during the second of my three flirtations with Modern Greek. I can even remember where I picked it up – the long-gone Borders bookshop in Birmingham. There’s some extra nostalgia thrown in right away.

The reason for the book’s particular strangeness is that the whole thing is written in typewriter script. Odd, for such an outwardly modern-bound book. In any case, I must have thought it was cool and quirky at the time, as it certainly didn’t put me off buying it. It made a change from the usual sans-serif sameness of most courses.

Hippocrene Greek Basic Course

Those unusual typewritten pages…

Clearly, that vintage Murder-She-Wrote vibe suggested it was a reprint of a much older book. I didn’t think too much of it, except to note that the publisher, Hippocrene, was based in the US, and had a lot of older re-issues of other fairly obscure works in its catalogue. (It still does, incidentally, and is still going strong!)

Hippocrene Greek Basic Course

Publisher clues…

Wind forward over a decade, and I’m into online language learning resource hunting in a big way. I happen across the vast repository of language courses at Live Lingua. Predictably, I’m like the cat that got the cream. They’re vintage resources, for sure, having served to train US military and volunteering personnel for decades. But they’re free, and they’re still solid.

And also… a little familiar?

Joining the Dots

It turns out that my Hippocrene title is one of those reprints too. In fact, it’s pretty much a straight facsimile of the first volume of the FSI Greek course available on Live Lingua.

The dots were joined.

And it’s a good connection to make. All of the original course audio is available at Live Lingua. Now, for the first time, I have the listening material to go with that Hippocrene book, albeit via a slightly unusual route!

The book is still available even today, and, although you can find the same course for free, I must admit that it’s nice to read the physical item in your hands. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, with its strange typewriter charm.

And now I feel I know it even better.

The Road to Suppletion

An interesting question popped up in our Gaelic class this week. We’ve been looking at comparatives and superlatives of adjectives lately, and just like good, better, best, Gaelic has a few that don’t conform to the regular paradigm. The word for small is one of them: we have beag (small) and lugha (smaller). A canny classmate asked: where does that mismatched lugha come from? In short: suppletion.

Suppletion is when parts of word patterns get replaced by bits from completely different places. The term derives from Latin supplere, supply, and that’s quite apt – one pattern is supplying another with its own bits and pieces. 

For a look at the irregular havoc suppletion can wreak, just see what happened to good in the Germanic languages. Instead of gooder and goodest we have better and best, which don’t bear the Good family resemblance one bit. So where did adoptive better and best come from, then? Well, there seem to have been two synonymous words for good in Proto-Germanic: *gōdaz and *bataz – and for whatever reason, they became mushed together, with the *bataz bits filling in for the comparative and superlative of *gōdaz.

The Road to Suppletion

As with many odd irregularities, it’s the kind of thing that happens to paradigms that are in frequent use. For instance, super-frequent good-better-best has irregular comparatives in the Romance languages too (French bonmieux), as does badworse-worst (Spanish malopeor). The patterns for large and small often get grafted onto too, although that fate hasn’t befallen the English versions (yet). Not so for Gaelic (or Irish, for that matter) with that beag – lugha mix.

The origins of lugha aren’t that obscure, as it turns out, as lugha appears to be cognate with the English word light (as in as a feather). In terms of meaning, it’s pretty close; you can imagine speakers conflating small and light, especially referring to food or other goods. The result is that small – smaller somehow became small – lighter, beag – lugha.

So much for small, then. But what happened to light, if beag had pinched its superlative for itself?

As is often the case, it seems to have simply faded away, just as the non-comparative grade of *bataz has left the Germanic languages. The words for light in Gaelic and Irish are now remodelled versions of ‘un-heavy’aotrom and éadrom respectively (from tromheavy).

The Etymological Rabbit Hole

All in all, tracing the winding etymological of suppletive paradigms paints a fascinating picture of one type of language change. Following up on these hybrid etymologies via resources like Wiktionary can provide some real insight into both how your target language evolved over time, and how it is related to other languages.

The remnants of many a forgotten root lie along the road to suppletion.

Teach Yourself enhanced ebooks plus audio for Kindle

Teach Yourself Enhanced eBooks : Bargains Hiding in Plain Sight

I had a bit of Amazon credit to spend this week (from TopCashBack, no less), so I decided to treat myself to a couple of Kindle books I’d had my eye on for a while: the enhanced ebook + audio editions of a couple of Teach Yourself Complete titles.

As Greek and Polish seem to have lodged themselves firmly in my heart as big life language projects (did I choose them, or did they choose me?), it seemed only right to install both of them on my device. Although they’re hardly brand new editions, the ebook + audio range being available since the early 2010s, they’re my first in that format. They’re cheap, too – most are just £3.99 right now, with the odd one, like Cantonese, even cheaper.

Of course, I already have both of these books (in several versions, vintage and otherwise, as you’ll know if you’ve been following my recent compulsion!). But even though I’ve completed them both in other guises, I still love these titles for revision. I’m also stoked by the idea of a one-stop-shop mobile library – a single place for all that content, with no need for app-switching for listening material.

Teach Yourself enhanced ebooks plus audio for Kindle

Teach Yourself Complete Greek and Complete Polish on my Kindle app

Teach Yourself… To Be Compatible?

Confession: I almost didn’t bother with them at all.

The reason was the not insignificant number of negative reviews left for those products on Amazon. The big bad mark against them was the charge of incompatibility, particularly the audio. A number of users frustratedly left their one-star slaps-in-the-face stating that the audio simply didn’t work on their devices.

Thankfully, it seems like an issue on older Kindles, rather than the content itself. I’ve had no problems at all running them on the Kindle app for iOS on my two-year-old iPad. Audio prompts appear as little speaker icons, and a mini player pops up at the bottom of the screen when you tap them. There is full scrub / pause functionality too, so you don’t have to listen to the whole thing from start to finish.

Teach Yourself… to Read Non-Latin Scripts?

That said, there was another frequent review gripe that put me off plumping for them even more than the potential audio issues. Several users mentioned a lack of support for non-Latin characters in the dialogues. Instead of letter characters, some only saw blank boxes – clearly a font fail. Now that would be a deal-breaker for languages like Greek, Hindi and Russian!

Again, it seems to be a case of device support, not product support. Greek characters display perfectly on Kindle for iPad. Not only that, but they’ve used a really nice, readable font for the Greek.

If there’s anything to be said in the way of constructive criticism, it’s just a question of layout. Sometimes, vocab lists can look cramped, for instance, although that’s easily fixed by rotating to landscape. Elsewhere, some exercise tables are obviously images rather than text, with instructions to ‘fill in’ despite not being editable (as the image above illustrates). Nonetheless, they’re tiny quibbles given the convenience of the format.

If In Doubt…

All in all, my experience with the Teach Yourself Complete ebooks has been tiptop. It all goes to show that you can’t always trust reviews out of context.

If in doubt, though, you do have one tool at your disposal for a definitive answer on compatibility: the free sample. There are free samples – usually just the first chapter or so – available for all Amazon Kindle books. I made sure to download both the Greek and Polish samples above before spending my hard-earned (yet still bargainous) £3.99.

If you want trusty Teach Yourself content on your devices, these are a really good punt. They’re not available in all the Teach Yourself Complete languages, but most of the major learning languages are available (French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, for starters).

The futuristic shell of Selfridge, Birmingham. Brum hosts the Commonwealth Games 2022. Image by Rob Grace,

A Commonwealth of Languages : The Hidden Wealth of Brum 2022

International events are a touch-point for different languages coming into contact. No surprise, then, that I’m bursting with excitement and pride that my home city, Birmingham, will be hosting the Commonwealth Games this Summer!

It only seems like the life cycle of a midge ago that Brum was selected to host the next games. That, of course, was in the before… and so many things have happened since then. We’ve had a missed Eurovision, a year-shifted Olympics and Euros, and countless other disappointments as countries battled Covid.

But, touch wood, it seems like the Commonwealth Games are on track to bring that cosmopolitan magic to the city this July and August.

And what better way to welcome and respect our guests, than by learning about their many languages?

A Commonwealth of Languages

The Commonwealth is, of course, a smaller club of countries than Olympics-competing nations. So what languages might be coming to the city’s sports venues?

The answer is: potentially hundreds. Naturally, these include the cross-national lingua francas like English, French and Swahili. But in the mix is a wealth of languages each spoken by far fewer people, many of them endangered. I can’t possibly do them all justice in a short blog post – this excellent 2011 episode from the Talk the Talk podcast describes that fragile richness of tongues much more eloquently.

The Beauty That Hides

But the lesson for languages learners in all of this is simply to avoid generalisations when it comes to national languages. The fact is that supraregional, often transplanted tongues, like English in Australia, and French in Canada, obscure a picture of extreme linguistic diversity stretching back long before the introduction of those global comms conduits. And it’s a diversity that otherwise goes unnoticed on the international stage.

English and French are certainly not the only culprits; the spread of standard Swahili is impinging on smaller, local varieties too. Loss seems to be an inevitable outcome of globalising, commercialising languages, a topic covered in fascinating detail in Nicholas Evans’ Dying Words (well worth a read).

Doing Our Bit

So what part can we play in redressing the balance?

Well, just as the Commonwealth continues to modernise and deal with its own legacy, we can start by simply acknowledging that hidden wealth. When looking forward to a Brum of languages, deep dive. Peer behind the curtain of official languages, and shine a light on what is so rarely spotlit. What else is hiding behind those big languages of the competing countries?

In Tanzania, for example, there are over a hundred languages that coexist with Swahili. While there may be few resources to learn them (yet), just to know about them is a start in acknowledging the people that speak them.

It’s a small step towards welcoming Brum’s international guests with even more respect than ever.

Production courses build up a grammar and lexicon through a step-by-step approach. Image from

Production Matters

Having joked about the state of my French at a recent Linguascope webinar, I’ve been giving Paul Noble’s audio French course a whirl to revive and resume my secondary school language skills. Like the very similar Michel Thomas courses, his series is just magic for improving your language production.

Following a gradual, layering model of tuition, the courses provide a solid blueprint for producing language in the learner’s mind. Step by step, they build up a working grammar and lexicon in the gentlest way possible. As no-tears, get-up-and-running-quickly approaches, they’re honestly very hard to beat. And as a refresher for my français, it’s doing a grand job; I’m already thinking of getting the next steps follow-up.

One Way Street?

What I still miss, though, is language training in the other direction. As audio courses, both the Noble and Thomas series are necessarily a little restrained in terms of teaching comprehension. They give you grammatical tools and vocabulary, but using those alone you are more or less back-engineering any input that comes your way in the real world.

This deficit, of course, is largely down to the format of all formal courses, not just these select few. Thanks to the nature of the medium, they are necessarily finite. They can’t possibly contain enough ‘input training’ to improve that aspect of your fluency.

But thankfully, we can fill the other side of the equation through DIY listening techniques that provide a good comprehensible input model. Comprehension skills arise largely through exposure to unpredictable, everyday language, training your brain to be ready for anything in the target language.

The solution, in this case? A bit of podcast hunting, incorporating resources like News in Slow French into my weekly listens. Together with the Paul Noble course, they’ll make an excellent pairing: production and reception, covered.

Gap in the Market

There’s no doubt about it: courses that focus on production, through building a practical mental grammar, are based on sound learning principles, and are incredibly effective. They’ll form an indispensable part of my language learning arsenal for as long as they’re available.

So, not to take anything away from their usefulness, this recent experience is just more support for a blended, multi-resource learning approach, rather than reliance on a single course. Nothing new there. I do wonder, though, if there’s an opening in the market for a really clever resource that combines all of these elements.

Quelle bonne idée!

A policeman watches a protest march by. Image from

The Language Doth Protest Too Much? Learning from Conflict

We live in contested times. If one form of language best typifies that fact, it is the language of protest. 

It was a point driven home this week, with coverage of anti-Macron demonstrations in France all over the international news. La jeunesse emmerde le front vaccinal screamed the posters, turning on its head Macron’s own promise to (in more delicate terms) pee off the vaccine-hesitant.

Reading Between the Protest Lines

Regardless of whether we agree with the sentiment behind the cardboard, protest placards like these are valuable sources of target language in context. They have much in common with political campaign literature in this way. Both are equally handy authentic resources in miniature for the impartial language-learning observer. Namely, they’re short, snappy and contain very condensed vocabulary and grammar examples. As an added bonus, they provide very up-to-date and topical material for conversation.

Not to shy away from another side-benefit, though, their non-sanitised style is rather useful in another way. Popular protest slogans, like the above example shows, consist of highly colloquial, often profane, everyday language. As gritty as it is, it’s not a bad idea to be familiar with it. After all, learning only polite French is really learning half a language. Incidentally, If you feel the need to brush up on that first, take a look at the juvenilely tittersome Dirty French and Beyond Merde!

The Last Laugh?

After all is said and done, politics can be a dirty business, and one that all too easily sucks us into a void of despair. After de-politicising my social media streams, I try to keep a level-headed distance from adversarial politics now. Viewing it as a resource, rather than a constant rematch between tribes, makes it a lot more fun as a language learner.

That said, if you find your disagreement a heavy burden to bear, learning from protest placards is a way to have the last laugh. It’s the ultimate in turning a negative into a positive.

On that note, thank you, protesters: the word emmerder is now firmly in my Anki notes!