In a rut with resources? Create, create, create!

Creating language learning resources with a bit of translation magic!

Do you ever tire of using the same old resources again and again? Or maybe you just can’t seem to hit upon exactly the right resources to switch you on.

Maybe all you need is a bit of DIY.

I was feeling the drag with Duolingo of late. As much as I love the onerous owl, it was all getting a little repetitive. The addictive pressure of leagues added to the more-of-the-same platform fatigue. Not wanting to go cold turkey (I still find it a wonderful way to learn and practise), I scaled back a little.

Predictably, the move left an owl-sized hole in my heart at first. Yes! I even missed that frenzied, everyday point-piling practice. But most of all, I missed Duolingo’s translation method of learning, something that really works for me.

Waiting for the owl…

So I started wondering how I could bring some of that same magic to my learning in different ways – and maybe even extend it to my languages without a Duolingo offering yet, like Icelandic and Gaelic. “Waiting for Duolingo” has become something of a phenomenon amongst the language learning community, summed up in one spot-on tweet I came across recently:

Admittedly, I can see both sides of the argument here. One the one hand, there is a wealth of learning materials available. It certainly does seem a limiting shame to focus on a single one.

But on the flip side, a lot of people get a lot of joy and benefit from the ease of the Duolingo format.

The solution? Recreate those methods that work best for you, but in your own resources!

Method in the madness

First of all, I should explain what it is I like so much about the Duolingo method. There is actually something very traditional about the way the platform presents and drills foreign language material. In fact, it has a lot in common with the traditional exposition-practice method of old. Typically, this approach presents a set of model sentences as examples, then uses translation exercises – from and into the target language – to help students internalise them.

This method fell out of favour in language pedagogy for a number of years. You can understand why: it is challenging. It is hard to keep students switched on during a marathon of what amounts to a linguistic mental gym. This kind of learn-by-constant-modelling flies the flag for the old chalk ‘n’ talk of old-fashioned classrooms, while more communicative methods promised to get kids speaking sooner. However, as Duolingo shows, there is a place for both.

Digging for gold

Now, one of my favourite things is digging out forgotten old language learning materials. Look beyond the sometimes quaintly dated content, and the constructions and grammatical models are just as relevant to today’s students. The original tranche of Teach Yourself books, for instance, can be language learning gems that need just the lightest dusting off to be enlisted into the action again.

Teach Yourself Maltese (1965)

A 1980s reprint of Teach Yourself Maltese (1965) from my eccentric collection of language books.

These long-lost books completely fit that old exposition-practice mould. But even better, they are cheap! You can pick up copies from second-hand booksellers online for mere pence. And many old, out-of-print volumes are available as scanned PDFs if you look hard enough online (like this reworked, archived copy of Teach Yourself Irish).

And because of the similarity of approach between this and Duolingo’s method, I started thinking: could I turn this material into something similar?

A resource is born

A couple of weekends of code-tapping later, and it started to emerge: the Polyglossic Text Machine! Or Sentence Driller. I can’t decide which yet (and as it is chiefly for my own use, it doesn’t really matter!)

I compile lists of model sentences from my ancient books, and the program turns them into interactive translation exercises. I love it; I am burning through material, just like I pecked through all those sentences the green owl prepared for us. And those structures are sticking.

Creating resources to drill foreign languages based on ancient translation exercises!

Creating resources to drill foreign languages based on ancient translation exercises!

The project is put together in a programming language called Haxe, which compiles to HTML5 for deployment on the web. Haxe is actually quite easy to get into, and at some point, I would love to do a tutorial series on using it to make language games. Please get in touch or comment if this is something you would find useful!

No programming required!

That said, I realise my luck in already having the skills to do this from the ground up. It is completely a geek’s game; not everybody has the time or interest to develop electronic resources from scratch.

But it needn’t be so fancy – there are lots of free tools around that replicate this kind of drilling game without programming skills. If you have sourced some material you think will make brilliant drill fodder, try feeding them into build-your-own-activity resources like the following:

Custom resources are not simply about getting exactly the kind of resource you want. The huge added benefits include ownership and familiarity. By researching and creating them, you make your first pass of the material. When you come to the actual learning and practising, you are already one step ahead!

Finally, my focus above has been completely digital. But creating and learning buddy up across any media. For example, do you learn well through storytelling? Then take a look at this study, which showed how creative storytelling noticeably improved active foreign language production. And for further reading on the topic of creation and learning, this lovely article offers several ideas.

Don’t wait for the perfect resources to come along. Take inspiration from the things you like best, and create your own!

Richard West-Soley

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