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

Second-hand Language Books : Practical Treasures For A Pittance

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

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

Budding Linguist’s Aladdin’s Cave

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

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

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

Second-hand Language Books, 3, 2… 1!

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

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

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

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

Four 1980s editions of Teach Yourself language books.

Into the blue…

Practically Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second hand language books.

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

An Audible Plus Language Learning Stash

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

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

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

I Got The (Word) Power!

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

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

Other Audible Goodies

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

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

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

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

Greek Rules Rule! Understanding Adjective Pairs

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

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

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

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

Greek Columns

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

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

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

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

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

New Book, New Language

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

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

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

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

Assimil's Kroatisch ohne Mühe

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

Language book whys and wherefores

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

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

Secondly, another language? Really?

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

A Eurovision head start

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

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

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

Basics Fatigue : Conquer Chapter One Boredom and Fill Those Gaps

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

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

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

So how to conquer basics fatigue?

Seek Novelty

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

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

Widen the Net

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

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

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

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

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

Langenscheidt's Polish course - sample page

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

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

A Practical, Active Approach

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

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

Teach the Basics

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

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

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

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

Greek Readers for Impatient Story Lovers

If you go as giddy for language books as I do, then you too probably came over all a-flutter at the release of the Teach Yourself / Olly Richards range of easy readers. They come in an exciting range of languages, covering not only the biggies like French, German and Spanish, but also some less well served languages like Icelandic and Turkish. Irish and Japanese are just around the corner, too.

To the frustration of Modern Greek learners, though, there’s still no title στα ελληνικά. The need for graded Greek learning material urged me to cast the net a bit wider, and happily, I found some excellent alternatives to curb my impatience.

Here are three favourites I’m getting a lot of use from in recent studies.

THE ROUTLEDGE MODERN GREEK READER

As a language buff, I thought I’d mined all that Routledge had to offer. I’m not sure how I missed this little gem, then, sitting outside of its better-known ranges like Colloquial and Essential Grammars

The book consists of 25 very short stories adapted from popular folk tales. In fact, the compendium was pulled together by a dedicated folklorist, Maria Kaliambou, lending a real sense of authenticity to the collection. Alongside each tale, there’s a Greek-English glossary, as well as a set of graded comprehension questions – just like the Teach Yourself stories range.

The cover of Routledge's Greek Reader.

The Routledge Modern Greek Reader is pricey – certainly more than the tenner the Olly Richards story books will cost you. But there’s little else like it with such great support for foreign language learners right now. Definitely recommended for moving your Greek up a notch!

From the Greek Web

Like in Iceland, many prescribed texts for schools are freely available on the Greek interwebs. If you have the patience to drill down the links at Παιδαγωγικό Ινστιτούτο, you can find Greek e-books on all kinds of subjects. Likewise, ebooks.edu.gr and openbook.gr are worth a look. There are two resources in particular that fill that Short Stories in … slot nicely.

ΚΕΊΜΕΝΑ ΓΙΑ ΝΈΟΥΣ ΣΕ ΑΠΛΆ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΆ

Texts for Young People in Simple Greek

My favourite by far is actually a set of books aimed at young overseas and non-native speaker students from 11-15. Despite the target audience, the stories are fairly fun and engaging, and draw from a range of social topics that make good class discussion material. There’s also a good mix of dialogue and prose, across both colloquial and written styles.

 

ΑΝΘΟΛΌΓΙΟ ΛΟΓΟΤΕΧΝΙΚΏΝ ΚΕΙΜΈΝΩΝ

Anthology of Literary Texts

Despite the haughty name, Ανθολόγιο λογοτεχνικών κειμένων is a collection of abridged, lively snapshots from Modern Greek literature intended for native speaker schoolchildren. With both poetry and prose, it’s not only a bite-sized way to get more Greek reading in, but also an introduction to authors, styles and themes in contemporary Greece.

Both this and the previous resource are aimed squarely at schools in Greece, so there is no English vocabulary support, unlike the Routledge volume. That said, they make for pretty good TL-rich immersion!

And of course…

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Harry Potter. If you can get hold of them, an honourable mention has to go to the J.K.Rowling series in Greek translation. They’re par for the course in polyglot circles, and if you know the originals, you’ll have a helping hand. I’m currently slaving my way through the third book myself.

So there you have it: three alternatives in the absence of a Short Stories in Greek. Of course, if Teach Yourself happen to be reading this: please give us a Greek version soon!

Have you come across any other easy reader gems in Greek? Let us know in the comments!

A pen on a ring pad. Keeping a note of your tasks helps you spot the gaps. Image from freeimages.com.

Mind the Gaps

Last year, during the first Covid-19 lockdown, I took to logging my ever-increasing weekly language learning activities.

It seemed a sensible way to track how I was using all that extra time at home, and gauge how fair I was being with my language timetabling. Ultimately, it evolved to be a log of mainly face-to-face activities rather than every little thing. But even so, at the height of the crisis last year, I was filling my week with iTalki sessions, Zoom classes and polyglot get-togethers.

Weekly language learning log from September 2020

One of my weekly language learning logs from September 2020

As you can see, things had hotted up pretty well by September. I’d had even busier weeks, although they fell before I started logging. So that packed picture above fails to capture the true fever pitch at its height!

Side note: It might look like I’m blowing my own trumpet here. But some polyglots I know would scoff at this as a mere trifle; I’ve heard of  a few very dedicated people taking three or four iTalki lessons a day!

Right now, though, the picture is a little bit different:

A snapshot of my (relatively) quiet weekly language learning log from June 2021.

A snapshot of my (relatively) quiet weekly language learning log from June 2021.

That’s just four face-to-face language learning activities I managed this week. Two are iTalki lessons, one is a voluntary university class, and the other is an informal online meet-up for learners. Quite a bit of slack compared to all those months ago.

Gaps… or a Breather?

It’s not really ‘slack’, of course. As society opened up again, things got busier and busier with, well, life stuff. I’ve done the first year of a part-time Masters, gradually started travelling for work again, and we’ve all seen the first shoots of real-life, face-to-face social life poking through once more. So, perhaps, those gaps have served an important purpose: a well-needed chance to catch my breath.

But now, with a relatively quieter few summer months, it’s hard not to think “fill them now!” as a language junkie. And the itch has me scratching already. It won’t all be iTalki, of course. For one thing, over the coming weeks I’ve earmarked a bit of time each day to work on Irish 107 from the truly excellent series of courses by FutureLearn and Dublin City University. The intensive Gaelic summer courses at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig have caught my fancy, too. I’m eyeing up more evening classes at Edinburgh University for September. And I’m considering some group conversation meet-ups with The Online Greek Tutor site (which produces some brilliant free YouTube material, too).

Gaps? What gaps?

So what am I saying here? I was doing loads, now I’m doing less, so I’ve decided to do more again, to put it banally. But it’s thanks to that weekly language log that I’ve been able to track my activity levels and monitor those gaps. It’s given me a knowledge of my pace and my capacity.

And knowledge, in (meta-)learning, is power.

Exploring language family tree connections can be one of the most useful polyglot learning tools

Wiktionary Trails : Tracing Cognates

One of the greatest things about Wiktionary, the crowd-sourced, multilingual lexicon, is the wealth of etymological information included in its entries. If you’ve ever wondered where does that word come from? then Wiktionary is a good place to start.

I’m a fiend for digging into my vocab’s provenance. It’s a natural curiosity and desire to join the dots up. Once I start pondering on a word, I have to follow it right down the rabbit hole.

Let’s play Wiktionary

This week, it was the Greek παίζω (paízo – I play) that I randomly chanced to cogitate upon. If you have a bit of Greek yourself, you might well recognise the connection with παιδί (paidhí – child). That’s a self-explanatory etymology, since playing is something children are especially fond of. And from παιδί, you can see a host of other connections thanks to Greek’s generous donations of words to science and medicine: paediatrics, pedagogy and so on. 

What I didn’t know was how much deeper the interlanguage connections of παιδί go. At first glance, paidí (paidí) doesn’t look much like other Indo-European words for child, save perhaps the Irish páiste, which may itself be a borrowing from Greek via Latin. I’d assumed it might be a loanword from a neighbouring, non-Indo-European language. But the truth lies closer to home; the Wiktionary entry throws light on some hidden family resemblances.

Setting off on a Wiktionary track and trace, it turns out that παιδί goes back to a diminutive form of Ancient Greek παῖς (pais – child). That, in turn, has been traced back to a reconstructed Indo-European form *peh2w-, denoting smallness or few in number. The Greek, then, seems ultimately to have arisen from the notion of a small person.

The relevance of that might not ring any bells. That is, until you check out the Wiktionary page and peruse the raft of guises this root has been cast to across other languages. These are just a few:

  • Latin: puer (boy), puella (girl); paucus (few)
  • Spanish: poco (few)
  • Italian: pocco (few)
  • Norwegian: fá (few)
  • English: few
  • Russian: пти́ца (ptíca – bird)
  • Polish: ptak (bird)

It’s the idea of smallness that links all these. Suddenly, παιδί (paidí) doesn’t seem such an outlier after all.

Wherever the trail may lead…

You might wonder what all the point of this meandering is, of course. Well, I find it helps to create a bird’s eye view of related languages you study, especially if you’re a regular dabbler. If you know the wider terrain, and make connections between linguistic territories, there are more connections for your brain to secure those words and phrases in memory.

And that can only be a good thing!

Having a rest doesn't mean stopping your language learning entirely. Image by Aurimas Gudas, FreeImages.com

Ticking Over : A Language Skeleton Plan for Rest Times

I’ve had a rare decompression week – seven days when I cleared my calendar, took my foot off the pedal and simply chilled. Work, language lessons, everything. It’s a good habit to build in every once in a while, and for sure, many of us don’t do it enough.

But if you’re like me, doing nothing is never really an option.

For a start, languages are a form of recreation for polyglot hopefuls; we study because we enjoy them. Although there’s no denying that they take some energy, it’s a very positive kind of effort. That said, it’s vital to build in some downtime now and again. So, in order to strike a happy medium, I like to have a skeleton routine ready. Quite simply, that is just a set of daily tactics that keeps the engine ticking over while the rest of life is idling down.

Language Essentials

For me, the skeleton language plan consists mainly of those digital habits bound up in streaks. Duolingo, Anki, Glossika – that’s my core trio. They all work well as basic background tasks because, first and foremost, they aren’t particularly time-hungry. They can fit around walks, shopping trips and family visits. They’re especially easy to tick off if you are an eat-the-frog type of person!

But apps like this are also handy skeleton pals in other ways. In particular, you can adjust your use of them to switch into maintenance mode, rather than active learning. With Duo, that takes the shape of revising old topics for a week rather than tackling new ones. With Anki, I dial down the new-words-per-day setting. And with Glossika, I focus on existing repetitions, rather than new phrases.

All in all it’s a nice recipe for catching my breath while not slipping backwards.

How do you power down but keep going? What are your language learning ‘must-do’ tick-boxes? Or do you find it better to completely switch off when taking a break?

A hand being hit by a beam of sunlight. Sometimes the language chooses YOU. Image by Adam Jackson, freeimages.com

Reverse Polyglotology : The Language Chooses YOU

I’ve often heard it said that sometimes the language chooses you, rather than the other way round.

I’ve had my fair share of that in recent months. For a start, Swahili just dropped right into my lap in the Autumn. It was a language I’d never considered learning before, in large part due to my own cultural blind spots. So it was by complete chance that I had the opportunity to join the excellent first-level Swahili for Postgraduates courses at Edinburgh.

Note that I wasn’t the most willing draftee to begin with. Right up until that moment, I might be overheard grumbling, showing a fair amount of self-denial at my dabbler nature, imploring “no more languages, Rich – you have enough on your plate”. That is, before eye-rolling at myself, and plumping straight for a fresh one. But, nine months on, I have no regrets. Swahili chose me, and I am richer for it.

The Polyglot Compass

The whole notion of ‘being chosen’ is one I’ve pondered a fair bit of late. You see, my polyglot compass has settled almost autonomously on Greek and Polish  as projects of the moment. For sure, I have a lot of maintenance projects going on, but at any given point in life, there’s really only time to focus on actively upping one or two of them. And Greek and Polish have somehow clambered to the top of the pile.

I say ‘somehow’, because I’m not sure the decision-making process is always active with these language priorities. A lot has to do with circumstance. For instance, I’ve been working with a couple of tutors I respect and get on well with lately. That makes it more of a pleasure than a chore to book in regular iTalki lessons. That means I’m currently averaging a conversation lesson a week in both those languages, less through personal goals and more through social ease.

Language Lurking Locally

And there’s also the local environment. Luckily for me, Edinburgh has a sizeable Greek and Polish population, so I hear those languages on a regular basis on the street. I see Greek and Polish products on the supermarket shelves. I go to cafés and restaurants run by people from those countries. And I have strange but satisfying chance encounters with the languages from time to time, too.

This week, buying ouzo at a supermarket (I honestly can’t help myself), I was served by a Greek employee who, firstly, was astonished that I spoke Greek. After the surprise wore off, he ended up telling me where to get even better ouzo than they sold at that supermarket. Language skills are useful, eh?!

In short, for one reason or another, life circumstances at this point just happen to have thrown Greek and Polish everywhere in my path. And it’s just the continuation of theme, to be fair; I first encountered Polish through our elderly neighbour as a child, and Greek came to me via the magic of Greek and Cypriot Eurovision entries. I certainly have form here.

So, what to do but embrace the serendipity of it?

Has fate had a hand in choosing your languages, too? Are you wholly the chooser or the chosen? Let us know in the comments!