Oculus Quest 2 : Screenshot of a street in Rome in the Wander app

Oculus Quest 2 : Virtual Language Hopping

You can bend almost anything to language learning. And this week, I’ve been using that excuse to justify numerous hours of VR gaming.

I recently gave in to my curiosity and plumped for an Oculus Quest 2 headset. Admittedly, it’s not my first foray into virtual reality. The technology has been edging into the mainstream for a couple of years now, and I got an early shot at it when a colleague – way ahead of me on the curve – brought his gear into the Linguascope office at the end of last year.

It blew my mind.

There’s something inspiringly sea change about it. I was in awe – you pop on that headset, and it just feels like the future. To put that into perspective, I grew up watching the likes of Back to the Future Part II, with its crazy holographic shark heads, and Tron, which placed players in the game. Those childhood fantasies were finally here.

That said, while playing it in the office, it wasn’t the footloose and fancy-free dash into the virtual sunlit uplands just yet. The tech seemed nascent, rather than ready. I was put off by the clunkiness, the wired nature of the headset, the need for a separate computer to run it.

Oculus Quest changed all of that.

It’s not only light, portable and powerful. It has some fantastic draws for language learning aficionados.

Oculus Quest 2 : Wander

Of course, VR has incredible potential to transform language learning directly through purpose-made applications. Mondly were the first to develop a language app for the Oculus platform, with an immersive conversation simulator. Sadly it remains available only for the older Rift headset.

In fact, the winning hook on the Quest 2 isn’t a language app, or even a regular, run-of-the-mill game in a foreign language. Rather, it’s the immersive Google Street View experience, Wander, that has me billing and cooing (in various languages).

The idea is incredibly simple: place the user within a 3D, virtual rendering of Google’s vast, extensive VR mapping of the world. The winning feature for us language bods is the fact that signage is everywhere, particularly in the cities. Wherever people gather, there is a wealth of material to read and decipher.

Japanese signage in Tokyo seen on Google Street View

Japanese signage in Tokyo seen on Google Street View

I must say that the virtual escape is hugely welcome in the year of the lockdown. Forget cheap getaways – how about no getaways? Wander had me exploring all of my old favourites. Berlin, Oslo, Reykjavik – the nostalgia was soaring, and the language was, comfortingly, all over the place. Street signs, shop windows, billboards – it had me feeling that language learner travel buzz all over again.

But it doesn’t stop at the familiarly far-flung. A particularly fun feature is ‘Random’, redubbed ‘Guess the Language’ (by me). Click it to be transported to anywhere in the world. Your mission? Find a signpost or billboard, and try to guess from the text where you are. My favourite so far has to be Kalaallisut (it almost stumped me, it did).

Hours of fun, my friends.

Gaming Proper

Gaming, of course, has long been open to a blend with language learning through conventional play options. Notably, Apple Arcade is bursting with goodies for linguists. Likewise, Oculus Quest has copious titles available to play in multiple languages. Spice and Wolf is an immersive experience available in Chinese (both varieties) and Japanese. Or if you prefer a bit of action, bestseller POPULATION: ONE allows you to play in French, German, Japanese, Korean or Spanish. Fire up those dictionaries!

As for me, I’m off to play a bit more BeatSaber just now. And if get any further into those BTS tunes, I’m going to be ordering Colloquial Korean at some point soon.

Owls chatting. Photo by Ross Dismore, freeimages.com

Battle of the Owls: Duolingo vs. Glossika

You have to hand it to the owls.

For a start, they’re wise. And they love learning. Well, at least in educational lore, having long been considered symbols of all things academic. They make very apt representatives for our language learning knowledge quests. Little wonder then, that two popular language platforms, Duolingo and Glossika, have adopted our feathered friends as their respective mascots.

On the surface they might not appear particularly alike. Different breeds of owl, if you like. But the contrasting plumage hides a strong family resemblance. In fact, their approaches to teaching languages are very similar. Both teach via a vast bank of sample sentences, incorporating spaced repetition techniques to lodge vocab and structures in memory. Both platforms employ a similar listen-read-type system to drill three of the four core language learning skills. And both offer an impressive (and growing) array of languages. For their different colours, those owls are quite alike (although we’re sure they would deny it vociferously!).

So, in a battle of the owls, who comes out on top?

Pricing

Let’s get this one out of the way first: they follow very different access models. All Duolingo content is free to access, with a paid tier to remove ads if required. Those ads aren’t too intrusive, however, simply sandwiched between lessons.

On the other hand, Glossika is subscription-based. The price tag of up to $30 a month will seem like a hefty price for many. That said, there always seems to be some discount code floating around the internet for Glossika, so with save with some internet sleuthing. Students can also get special pricing of $13.50 a month.

Glossika has an extra-special secret, though. Minority languages under a degree of threat are completely free to learn. In fact, Glossika’s free Gaelic course was the route that led me to the platform in the first place. In addition, you can learn Catalan, Hakka (Hailu and Sixian), Kurdish, Manx, Taiwanese Hokkien, Welsh and Wenzhounese (Wu) via the technique for not a penny. These are full courses, featuring the same sentence set as the platform’s mainstream languages. 

🦉 Free is hard to beat, but Glossika’s admirable ethos of supporting endangered languages makes this one a draw.

Mass Sentences

Arguably, the price of Glossika is justified by its quite unique offering. Namely, its bank of thousands of sentences per language are no arbitrary choice. They represent high-frequency vocabulary and language patterns that support fluency training. It is a purposeful, statistics-driven mass-sentence technique.

In the face of this, Duolingo’s approach certainly feels a little more random. One of the frequent criticisms levelled at the platform target its plethora of often silly and whacky example sentences. It depends on the learner, of course. Personally, I love the strange and bizarre phrases that crop up in Duolingo exercises. They make for a greater salience in the learning material, and salience is the friend of memory.

And we should consider another aspect here: Glossika rolls out more or less the same set of sentences for every language. One the one hand, this is great for keeping your languages in sync as a kind of language audit. On the other, it leads to some minor irritations. For example, names and places are not translated, which is a missed opportunity to introduce some cultural material. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve silently cursed when having to type Ταϊπέι (Taipei) into Glossika in Greek.

By comparison, Duolingo fully embraces difference. The recent Finnish course, for example, celebrates uniquely local terms like sisu, and introduces a raft of common Finnish names. Likewise, the Norwegian and Swedish courses are celebrated by fans for their wry take on Scandinavian life. Of course, the fresh take on every language does mean that the courses do not match up in any shape or form. Trying to keep your polyglot knowledge in sync? You’re on your own.

🦉 Close, but let’s call that one another draw. This race is neck-and-neck!

Order, Order!

Mass-sentence cramming makes no sense without a clear progression in level. Both platforms steer the user through a well-defined path that increases in difficulty. However, Duolingo allows for a bit of freedom in user choice. Learners can progress to the next topic after levelling up to just the first of five experience levels (although many of us prefer to gold them up first).

Glossika, on the other hand, is less flexible; you have to work the list of sentences through exactly as the program intends. There is some leeway, though. You can choose to start at any of Glossika’s language-ladder checkpoints. If the basics are too simple, skip ahead to B1 – simple. What’s more, you can choose to ignore sentences you deem unhelpful or not useful as you work through them.

Glossika’s one-size-fits-all ethos is its undoing again here, though. As the sentence corpus is ordered identically for each language, you end up seeing quite complex structures in certain languages very early on. The reason simply seems to be that languages more recently added to the platform map differently onto English compared to Glossika’s original set of languages. Thus, they lack the one-to-one, simple correspondence to basic phrases in English that these first languages have in the beginners’ levels.

In A1 Gaelic, for example, some complex, idiosyncratic structures pop up within the first hundred sentences. Unlike languages like French and Spanish, Gaelic does not use a standard, vanilla verb for ‘to know’. Instead, periphrastic structures are used. The relatively straightforward English sentence “I know lots of people” is rendered in Glossika’s translation as “Is aithne dhomsa tòrr dhaoine” (literally, knowledge is to me of many people). There is no explanation of how this structure works – it is simply presented as is. However, it encompasses features like prepositional pronouns and the genitive case, which probably belong in intermediate-level grammar material. In contrast, Duolingo units are generally tailored to language-specific grammar points, with accompanying notes on usage.

🦉 I declare this a win for the green owl.

Error Catching

The two platforms have a wholly different take on error catching, too. Duolingo is the more forgiving of the two, allowing the odd typo in an answer. Glossika takes a much stricter approach, demanding exact spelling, accurate diacritics and even on-point punctuation before accepting an answer. Which side you take in this battle depends on how much a stickler for perfection you are.

One minor niggle, however, is Glossika’s pickiness for speech marks. To my mind, punctuation is of least concern when learning a language. However, leave out a comma, or use an exclamation mark instead of a full-stop, and Glossika marks an answer incorrect. It can be incredibly frustrating to repeat an exercise because of this.

In short, I find myself in the middle of this debate. Duolingo is a bit too forgiving; I’ve noticed it accept some quite liberal interpretations of Gaelic spelling! On the other hand, Glossika seems like a rather mean master at times.

Helping hands

Glossika pulls it all back with one nifty quirk, though: you can leave accents out. Purists will throw their hands up in horror at the very thought. But in the very early stages of learning, this can be a real boon. It’s hard enough for a beginner to remember where the accents come in  “στον σιδηροδρομικό σταθμό” (to the railway station) without stressing about stressing!

Glossika also edges ahead on alternative input. Some Duolingo courses in non-Latin alphabet languages allow for Latin alpha input, but support is not always complete, as with Greeklish. Conversely, Latin keyboard support is solid across Glossika’s language offerings. And even within Latin alphabet languages, there are helping hands – you can substitute Icelandic ð with d and þ with th, if you really struggle with foreign keyboard layouts, for example.

Of course it makes sense, in the long run, to learn how to type in Greek, Russian and so on. But it’s nice to have the option to get off to a quicker start.

🦉 The owls are evenly matched here, it seems, but they could both learn from each other.

Voices

With listening skills being, for many, the biggest challenge in language learning, speech is everything. How platforms approach the production of native sounds can be a deal-clincher.

Glossika is exclusively human in this respect. Every recording is a native speaker. That is an important consideration for many learners, who prefer human voices over digital text-to-speech. Usually, the same speaker narrates the whole course, but on other courses (Polish, for example), different voice artists are used.

The downside to that, of course, is that sometimes, a voice will grate. As for me, I’m not overly keen on the choice of Icelandic voice. On the other hand, I find the Greek voice is really neutral and pleasant to listen to. It is very much pot luck.

On the other side of the coin, we have text-to-speech, which has come a long way since its early days. Duolingo makes a lot of use of this technology in many of its courses (although some, like Gaelic, Irish and Swahili, still use recordings of human speakers). The benefit to TTS is a smooth, very neutral voice in the target language, as opposed to occasionally, decidedly hit-and-miss recordings in the others. And the digital standard has not stood still – recently, the platform updated its Norwegian and Polish voices, which both now sound even more natural.

🦉 A lot of this is down to personal preference. Yet another draw?

Community

Finally, the true mettle of a platform may well lie in its users. And – spoiler alert – here is where Duolingo plays a real blinder.

Duolingo’s forum has always been a lively place, thanks largely to its armies of users. But the outfit makes particularly clever use of this by layering the forum on top of the actual content. Every single sentence is linked to a discussion thread where users can talk and ask question about it. An active bunch of moderators keep tabs on everything, which means that it’s never long before you get that explanation you really need to understand a structure. The result is an incredibly finely granulated repository of learning content. Kudos to the platform for spotting the potential of that.

Now, Glossika does have a well-maintained blog, which is open for comments and discussion, as well as a Facebook user group. But the level of interaction achieved on Duolingo is hard to beat.

🦉 Hands down, Duolingo won this match.

Joining Forces

Despite that last resounding victory, I have to admit it: those owls are pretty evenly matched on the whole. No twit (twoo) here. Duolingo and Glossika do similar things in subtly different ways, and thereby manage to complement each other nicely. That’s the reason both of them are essential items in my own daily language learning tactics.

And perhaps that is the ultimate lesson to learn in all of this. By joining forces and creating an app arsenal, we are much more likely to smash those language learning goals. The moral of the tale?

Two owls are always better than one.

What are your favourite aspects of these platforms? Or do you combine other apps that complement each other in similar ways? Let us know in the comments!

– no background info on each translation, which is problematic – for example, are we learning polite or familiar ‘you’ in some sentences?
+ presented with several ways to say the same thing – some say that shows real mastery! From Gaelic, for example, a’ sileadh and an t-uisge, snog and gasta, acrach and an t-acras air, sìde and aimsir.

A page from a German dictionary with the translation of various words. Image from freeimages.com.

Avoiding the Translation Crutch in Language Learning

I was on a mission this week: to minimise the interference of English translation in my language learning.

You are probably familiar with the scenario – that slow, faltering, stoppy-starty feel to conversation in a language you are learning. In those early stages, what we want to say often pops up in our native language first; then, we try to translate it into the target language on the fly. The inefficiency of it all is so frustrating.

Independence from translation is one of the super-skills of fluent foreign language use. But reaching that point, where Mentalese, the non-verbal code of thinking, bypasses your first tongue and goes straight to the target one, can seem a far-off ideal.

Translation is Everywhere

The problem is, we are constantly nudged to think of languages in terms of equivalencies. Just look at the most popular e-learning tools. Duolingo, Memrise, Glossika and many, many others default to translation exercises for drilling vocabulary. Even the setup of our beloved Anki assumes a one-to-one relationship between the new words you learn and some native matching pair.

Translation has its place, of course, and not only because of its very long pedigree as the classical language learning method of choice. If you have ever leafed through some old Teach Yourself volumes, for example, it was once the only way anybody ever considered learning or teaching a language.

And it has its success stories. Some very successful polyglots have achieved stunning results with translation. Take Luca Lampariello’s bidirectional translation technique, for instance. Similarly, the Assimil courses, based on side-by-side bilingual dialogues, continue to be incredibly popular.

It remains a rational starting point for the absolute beginner. For one thing, we need something to hook new words and phrases onto when we learn them. As such, even those old translation-based courses have their uses. I learnt masses of vocabulary and grammar from an ancient copy of Teach Yourself Polish. The only snag is, I still manipulate them quite clumsily and unnaturally in conversation, thanks to that translation bias.

Is there a better way to run, once we have learnt to walk?

Minimising abstractions

One route to weakening the native-hook reliance is to mimic how children acquire language: to tie new language directly to mental representations of the real world. If we see words as abstract symbols representing real-world concepts, then the translation method simply adds a second level of abstraction. No wonder it slows us down in higher-level speaking.

Some apps adopt an approach that minimises this reliance upon the native language. For instance, when Drops presents a new term, the translation is flashed up briefly with the pictogram to avoid misinterpretation. But beyond that point, its activities rely only upon the image, not the English translation.

Can we integrate that kind of non-verbal representation into our independent learning?

Helping hands

Well, one way I have explored recently is through physical signing – a kind of personal sign language. It is a good fit, to be honest. I can be a bit of a ‘hand talker’ in any case, as a visual thinker. My hands have a communicative mind of their own, and like to form shapes of their own accord along with the sounds that come out of my mouth.

Why not, in that case, enlist that trait in the battle to ‘de-English’ my foreign languages?

I start by forming the shape of the idea or concept with my hands as I say the target word out loud. Some signs are easier than others, but since they are purely personal cues, they can be as obtuse as you like. ‘Get’, for example, is a movement of the hands towards the body. For ‘rest’, I smooth out a flat surface before my body, as if preparing a bed to lie on, or painting a calm sea. The hope is that future retrieval of the word comes from a non-verbal representation, rather than an English translation.

Of course, you could also make this signing official. Fully-fledged sign languages have highly complex systems for expressing concepts like tense. For a kinaesthetic learner, these could offer very flexible support techniques to couple all sorts of grammatical features in a spoken language with a non-verbal memory cue.

Better meta

The native language trap is set when we talk about features of the target language, too. This might be with teachers and peers, but also when using text books and grammars written for a non-native audience.

Fortunately, squashing this bug is an easy win. You can go meta with your language skills by equipping yourself with the necessary speaking tools. By learning terms like ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ in the target language, you can work on grammar acquisition in a monolingual environment rather than resources meant for foreign learners.

Similarly, you might consider supporting the growing wave of social media content creators turning away from English and using the target language for discussion of polyglot themes. It can be a tough call, balancing a desire for linguistic diversity with inclusivity. But more and more members of the community are switching on to the idea.

Triangulation

All that said, some resources are just too good to write off just because they use a drill-by-translation approach. But all is not lost: you can change the base, or native language, in many of them. Simply make a different language your ‘native’ one!

Admittedly, this only works well when you have at least one strong foreign language already. You switch the base language of the app or resource to one of these, triangulating your learning with by linking two foreign languages. The bonus pay-off: it helps to maintain your stronger language, too.

A well-used triangulation tactic is to work through a Duolingo course designed for speakers of another language, such as German for Spanish speakers. In Glossika, too, you can change the base language to completely upend the environment, and avoid native translation as your method. Alternatively, if you are following your own DIY mass sentences programme, repositories like Tatoeba offer the same feature.

Translation Options in Glossika - a screen showing Polish and Norwegian (Nynorsk).

You can’t get away from translation in Glossika. But you CAN escape your native language. Here is a Norwegian (Nynorsk) sentence for learning, with Polish support.

The same works the old-fashioned way too, of course. It is easy enough to get hold of learning materials for a different native language audience, just like those alternative Duolingo courses. Assimil editions, for example, are available chiefly in French and German, like the Greek course for German speakers below.

A picture of the book "Griechiesch ohne Mühe" (Greek with Ease) by Assimil.

“Griechiesch ohne Mühe” (Greek with Ease) by Assimil – my latest acquisition for avoiding English translation!

Personally, I love building up a library of double-foreign language teaching materials – there is something really fun about constructing a web of all your language projects without everything revolving around English at the centre.

Gaining Your Wings: Comprehensible Input

At some point, of course, translation becomes a moot point. The stabilisers come off, and your level is enough to operate with authentic materials produced for a home audience.

When you reach lift-off velocity – say, A2 or B1 – you can do away with the translation crutch altogether. This is the point where you can start to ‘mass sentence’ up your skills the native way, through exposure to real-world media, and the copious reading and listening that comes with that.

Getting to this point whilst minimising translation is the real feat, though. If you can manage that, you will be well on the way to thinking directly in the target language.

Good luck gaining your own wings!

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming to fluency – language immersion in the Apple Arcade

Nothing like a bit of fun and games, is there? Of course, for most of us, language learning is the fun and games. But what if we could turbocharge that a little? I’d been mulling over the idea of getting back into gaming as a way to unwind of late. As if right on cue, Apple’s email invite to its new mobile games subscription, Apple Arcade, popped up in my inbox.

I used to love gaming as a kid, from my early VIC-20 days to my beloved Commodore 64. But for one reason or another – maybe with the disillusioning burden of real, adult life – I let that fun fall by the wayside. Nowadays, I’m more likely to be making games than playing them. Time was ripe to turn the tables.

Naturally, everything in my life has to involve language learning in some form or other. So it’s handy that many contemporary apps and games adhere to localisation standards which provide multiple translations. There is a crossover world out there just waiting for people like us!

Gaming genres for learners

The trick to learning through playing is to find gaming genres that contain copious amounts of text. You might instinctively start searching for word puzzle games, but they tend to lack more complex, sentence level material.

It turns out that quest-style role-playing games (RPGs), where you explore worlds and interact with characters, are ideal. The language is often in the form of colloquial dialogues with everyday, natural speech. Many of them are also full of fun, fantasy vocabulary, which goes down a treat if you enjoy foreign language Harry Potter books and the like.

And luckily, Apple Arcade features a lot of them.

Many of the platform’s quest games are available in more than ten languages, including the ‘biggies’, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. There is one caveat: usually, only the text is available in translation, rather than the full spoken audio dialogue. This makes gaming language practice more of a reading comprehension activity than anything else. But that’s incredibly useful in its own right, akin to watching Netflix in English with foreign language subtitles. You can always turn the English dialogue sound down too, if it distracts.

So what have I been playing this week?

CAT QUEST II

For my first outing into lingua-gaming, I plumped for the comic-style Cat Quest II by Singaporean indie outfit The Gentlebros. Love cats and dogs? No problem, as you can play as both in this cutesy RPG. The eye-catching graphics reminded me a lot of the bold, brash worlds I used to explore in arcade games like Pac-Land as a kid, making this title hard to resist. Download, boot up and switch to German: I’m ready to play.

Kudos to the developers for the delightful German translation. It avoids being the Google Translate hatchet job you might expect from a studio with less cash to splash than one of the behemoth firms. A heap of care and attention has gone into it, including cute, native play-on-words and puns for the character names. Even the quirky place names on the maps have been translated!

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

A spot of shopping in German: Cat Quest II on Apple Arcade

YAGA

What grabbed me most about Yaga is its basis in Slavic folklore. It has an authentic-sounding, haunting soundtrack to match. Not only that, but – rather appropriately – it is also one of the few games available in Polish.

You play the hapless, one-armed blacksmith Ivan, desperate to change his luck. The point-and-click, adaptive dialogue is a fun and immersive way to practise any one of an impressive fifteen languages.

Gaming for language learners: Yaga for iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Yaga on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Yaga for iPad on Apple Arcade

Another friendly chat in Yaga on Apple Arcade

MOSAIC

For lovers of dystopian noir, Mosaic is a bit of a treat. Dark, moody and more than a little bit trippy, it is also one of the few games offering a Norwegian Bokmål translation.

The game story takes place in a rich point-and-click environment where you play our beleaguered everyday anti-hero. But perhaps more uniquely, the exploration of his world also makes use of several self-contained games-within-a-game. Understanding the target language instructions is key to getting anywhere with these.

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic for iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic for iPad on Apple Arcade

In-game puzzing på norsk within Mosaic on Apple Arcade

Gaming for All

After playing my way through a few of these, one thing strikes me: it’s so easy to get started. Perhaps one of the best things about mobile gaming as a learning tool is this accessibility. Devices are so ubiquitous that there is no need to fork out for a console as well.

Device-based gaming also works out pretty cheaply, especially with platforms like Apple Arcade being subscription-based. For a flat monthly fee, you get access to unlimited games. Not only that, but Apple are pushing new games to users all the time, keeping things nice and fresh. And although I’m a shameless Apple boy myself (could you tell?), Android users can enjoy similar features with Google Play Pass.

Admittedly, you do need a certain level of competence in the language already in order to get the most out of it. Quest-based games seem a good fit for upper beginner / intermediate learners, as well as maintainers. That said, the slower pace of some of these types of game means that you have time to pause and look up unfamiliar material.

All in all, for mindful escapism with a dash of language practice, mobile gaming is proving hard to beat. It’s another very welcome way to unwind, capturing a bit of that youthful gaming fun I lost and flexing my lingua-muscles at the same time.

Are you a language learning mobile gamer? Do you have any recommendations for top titles? Please share them in the comments!

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Excel for Polyglots: Comparative audits to keep languages in sync

Duolingo, Memrise, Anki, Microsoft Excel. Huh, wait – Excel? How is that a language learning app?

Well, the Office software has some handy features that just happen to be right up our street as language learners. Namely, the ability to curate and administer lists in table form. And it just happens that this can be particularly useful if you learn more than one language.

One source of frustration as a polyglot learner is the discrepancy of vocabulary level between languages. This can be most obvious with fairly close language pairs. For instance, when practising Icelandic, I often realise that I know a term in Norwegian – but not the language I am trying to speak.

So how best to address these discrepancies?

Language auditing

Getting into the habit of performing a regular language audit, such a revisiting beginner materials is a good strategy for any learner. But one particularly powerful method for multi-language learners is the comparative audit.

In short, a comparative audit is simply taking stock of which words you know in one language, but not the other.

At the very early stages of learning a language, this can be as easy as scanning down a list. But when you get to the point of having hundreds and hundreds of words in your vocab store, the task is mammoth.

Enter Excel, data wizard!

Microsoft Excel and VLOOKUP

Most of us will have used Excel or another spreadsheet program at some point. But like me, you might not have gone beyond basic numerical information and a few simple sum functions.

It turns out that Excel is pretty good at handling textual data too. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yes, vocabulary lists! And it has a special function, VLOOKUP, which allows you to compare data between two tables. Sounds just perfect for our comparative audit.

Here’s how to enlist Excel to your polyglot cause in a few simple(-ish) steps.

Step 1: Port your data into Excel

First things first – you have to get your vocabulary data into Excel. The easiest way is to export from your program of choice as a CSV (comma-separated values) or tab-delimited text file. If you use Anki, this is as easy as heading to File > Export and selecting ‘Notes in Plain Text (*.txt).

Ensure that you only export the basic data and no media or tags. Ideally, you should just be exporting a word and definition / translation field. My Norwegian and Icelandic decks, for example, are populated by vocab notes with an English and Target Language field.

Export a separate file for each of the two languages you want to compare. In my case, I end up with two files, norwegian.txt and icelandic.txt.

Exporting data from Anki

Exporting data from Anki

Step 2: Import your vocab into Excel

In Microsoft Excel, create a fresh spreadsheet document, and head to File > Import. Select Text File, hit Import and locate your first exported vocabulary file from above. To preserve accented characters in our Anki list, select Unicode (UTF-8) as the File origin.

Importing vocabulary into Excel

Importing vocabulary into Excel – note that ‘Unicode (UTF-8)’ has been selected as the file origin to make sure accented characters are handled correctly.

Create a second sheet in the same document, and import your other list of vocabulary into that. You should now have a two-sheet spreadsheet document, each sheet showing a list of words in a different language. For clarity, make sure you name your sheets too. Simply double-click on the tab titles “Sheet 1” etc. to do that.

Step 3: Format your lists as tables

In each sheet, click and drag across the table to select your whole vocabulary list as a block. Now, click Format as Table in the Home section of the function ribbon / toolbar. It doesn’t really matter which style you use – I choose the colour I like best!

Once that’s done, change the new column headers to something more meaningful than the default values. I use English and Norwegian in my example below. One caveat – you need to have a column with the same title in both your tables for the VLOOKUP trick to work. Here, English will be my common column between Norwegian and Icelandic.

Vocabulary data formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel

My Norwegian vocabulary data formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel

Now, instantly, these is already more useful to us than static lists. Formatting as a table means you can use the column heading drop-downs to sort and filter your entries. Try it – sort alphabetically on the target language column. You’ve turned your data into a nifty dictionary! Not our primary goal, but a nice trick on the way.

Before we go on, it’s a good idea to name our tables so they are easy to refer to later. To do this, click anywhere in your table, then switch to the Table tab in the ribbon / toolbar. The simpler, the better – below, I just call mine Icelandic.

Naming a table in Excel

Naming a table in Excel

But now it’s the turn of our star, VLOOKUP. This is where the real magic happens.

Step 4: Adding a comparative column

Click on the target language column header of your second table and copy it (CTRL + C). Now, go to your first table, select the cell next to the target language column header (C1 in my example), and paste (CTRL + V). It should add a blank new column within that table. Let’s fill it up!

In the first cell under that new column header, we type in our VLOOKUP formula. This will depend on what you have named your tables and sheets, but mine looks like this:

=VLOOKUP([@English], Icelandic, 2, 0)

Let’s dissect that just now. The first item in the brackets is the column of the first table we’ll use at the lookup – the English entry. The second item, Icelandic, is the table we’ll look for a value in. Remember, we named that table a little earlier. The third item, 2, is the column number we’ll look for that item in, which is the target language column of the Icelandic table. Finally the fourth value, 0, is a flag to Excel that we want exact matches only.

If that boggles, simply start typing =VLOOKUP( in the cell. That calls up Excel’s formula hints and point-and-click formula building, which should help you tie things together accurately.

After doing that, something special happens – suddenly, the whole column is filled with entries. If the English term was found in the Icelandic table, the corresponding Icelandic word is pulled in. If not, we simply get #N/A.

A quick note if that doesn’t work immediately: check that the data type of the cells in that third column are set to format as General, not Text.

A cross-referencing table in Excel using VLOOKUP

Our first step in creating a cross-referencing table in Excel using VLOOKUP.

Not very tidy, is it? That #N/A is simply stating that the lookup resulted in nothing at all.

Step 5: Tying off the loose ends

We can make it all look better by wrapping it in another Excel formula, IFERROR. Change the formula in that first cell to:

=IFERROR(VLOOKUP([@English], Icelandic, 2, 0), "-")

This tells Excel to carry out our VLOOKUP function, but to return a dash if it results in an error (i.e., no data). Suddenly, it’s looking a lot neater.

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Now it is crystal clear where you know a word in one language but not the other. To make things even clearer, click the dropdown on that third column, and filter it to show just the dashed elements. There is your list of words to work on in the second language!

Filtering your vocabulary items in Excel.

Filtering your vocabulary items in Excel.

Alternatively, filter on everything but the dashes to revel in the wealth of words you know in both. Enjoy that moment of pride!

For reference, here’s an example Excel file comparing sample vocabulary in French and Spanish.

Where to go from here?

What you do next is up to you. But now, you have the data in your hands, and data is power: what you know, you can act on. Export the filtered list of gaps to work on learning missing vocabulary in any number of ways.

Clearly, you can take these techniques a lot further, too. Currently, the table only checks one way, such as Icelandic to Norwegian in my example. But you can experiment with the same techniques to create much more complex and comprehensive spreadsheets to interrogate both ways.

Lastly, I’ve used Microsoft Excel in this example, but the same functionality is available in other spreadsheet programs, too. The free alternative Google Sheets, for example, has its own VLOOKUP function that works in an almost identical manner. Play around with the tools available, and you can add that dull old spreadsheet package to your list of exciting, innovative language apps!

Have you given this trick a spin? Have any interesting and useful variations on it? Please share in the comments!

Journaling, or writing a diary, can be a wonderful tool in your language learning kit.

Dear Diary… Get personal with language learning through journaling

Sometimes you just have to let it all out. To that end, journaling, or keeping a regular record of the important events in your life in writing, is as old as the hills. From the Latin diurnalis (‘of the day’), diary writing has been both an emotional outlet and historical ledger for countless people. Some, like Samuel Pepys, ended up becoming very famous for it. In fact, the earliest evidence of diary keeping we have dates back nearly 2000 years.

Today, experts continue to expound upon the benefits of journaling. Amongst other things, the positive impact of diary writing on mental health is a popular topic for discussion.

But what if you could tap into some of that power for your own language learning? There are some solid reasons why journaling counts amongst the ultimate daily writing tasks for language learners. Here are just a few of them, along with some tips on getting into language journaling as a total newcomer.

Mine relevant vocabulary

Have you ever found your learning material a little impersonal? Mass-produced language courses cater for the common denominator. The topics you study can sometimes feel a little disconnected from your real life circumstances. As useful as ‘At the doctor’ might be as a vocab theme, it’s not something than many have many learners enthused at first glance.

Conversely, journaling about your own life makes for a beautifully personalised learning journey. As a vocabulary mining exercise, the kind of things you will look up will be very relevant to your life.

Describing people, places and experiences that are important to you increases the salience of each word, and, through that, increasing the likelihood of easy recall. Looking up and claiming those new vocabulary items will give you a real sense of ownership over them.

Conversational relevance

What’s more, the kind of language you use while journaling carries over wonderfully to conversational speech. Think about the kinds of thing we chat to friends about: what we’ve been up to lately, where we’ve been, who we’ve seen and what we think about it all. Journaling is like a masterclass in everyday gossip. Soon, you’ll be chatting over the garden fence in the target language like the best of them!

Connect emotionally with learning

There is no less effective learning than learning for learning’s sake. The brain must regard learning as relevant, and make emotional connections, in order for material to stick. Think of it this way: learning a language should not be about creating a box labelled, say, ‘French’, and filling it up with new things. Rather, it should be about weaving in a whole new set of connections from new ‘French’ material into your existing neural network. Journaling is a fantastic way to stitch together new language material with your existing emotional world.

Make learning cathartic

Journaling can be cathartic. You can work out your everyday frustrations on the page. And by doing so, you start to associate the target language with those warm, fuzzy feelings of emotional release. These kinds of positive associations make for very strong learning experiences!

Motivation to write

Some skills are easily overlooked when learning a language independently. Writing, in particular, is an easy one to neglect. Part of the reason for this is motivation, again; it is difficult for the brain to grasp a point to arbitrary written tasks traditionally given by textbooks and teachers.

Not so with journaling – for all of the reasons above, diary writing can light a fire under some learners’ language bonfires. It can be an absorbing, steam-letting, exciting exercise, and one that you look forward to every couple of days.

The potential to care about what you write about can be nurtured, too. Why not invest in a shiny new Moleskine to journal in, for example? Taking pride in your own writing is yet another route to encouraging your skill to blossom.

A unique souvenir

The best journal writing is the kind that you can look back on weeks, months and even years later, and re-experience your adventures with travel and languages. Writing about your travels in the target language country – in the target language – is a wonderful way to record those moments for posterity.

While you travel, you will also come across lots of new words on public signs, posters and similar. Referencing them in your writing, perhaps even illustrated with pictures, will keep them safe and help you commit useful ones to memory.

Your own secret code

Of course, the chances are that writing in another language lends a whole new level of secrecy to your writing. This takes us back to Pepys, who used a code based on Spanish, French and Italian for some observations deemed a little too sensitive for prying eyes!

Journaling tools and software

Of course, there is nothing quite like keeping a journal the old school way, in that beautiful Moleskine. But there are myriad digital tools to choose from, too.

Two dedicated journaling apps, however, stick out of the pack for me. They have both been designed specifically for the task of diary keeping, and aim to encourage the user to write. They also come with extra features such as password protection, which could be handy if you are writing down your most sensitive secrets – whether or not they are in another language!

Day One

Apple aficionados will certainly want to take a look at Day One. This premium app – currently available only for OS and iOS – is both beautiful simple and clean, as well as feature-packed. If you combine language learning with travel, its geo-tagging of posts makes it a particularly valuable investment for the language journal keeper.

The app can be locked with your fingerprint on a mobile device, which keeps your target language musings nice and private.

Journey

Journey offers the same broad features as Day One, but is available on Windows and Android platforms, too. User can add multiple photos and video to entries, which could be put to great use when journaling about your linguistic adventures.

Both Day One and Journey are excellent apps for journaling, with little to separate them. Both are free to download, with premium features unlocked with in-app purchases. Journey uses Google drive to sync its data, which some users might prefer over the proprietary sync service that Day One now uses.

Other text editing software

Of course, you don’t need to use a dedicated journaling app to start documenting your life in the target language. My first digital journal in a foreign language was simply an iOS Pages document. I just added a little Russian to it each day, and soon it had grown to the size of a short story!

These come with their own benefits, too. While the layout is much more general compared to a dedicated journaling app, you also have the freedom to design your own diary format. Additionally, Word Processing apps include more heavy-duty features of interest to linguists, such as spell-checking dictionaries in a range of languages.

There is no shortage of text editing programs to try out your journaling in. What’s more, many of them are free! For instance, Google Docs offers a solid, cross-platform option for no cost at all. As well as the browser-based web app, it is also available as a handy Android or iOS app. Then, of course, is the behemoth of Word Processing, Microsoft Word, also available across a whole range of platforms and pricing plans, from free to paid.

Specialist writing software

Perhaps you feel like something with just a little more creative nudge than the big, bold industry standards. You are in luck again; there is a burgeoning industry in apps designed to encourage and support creative writing.

They are often no-frills, but organised to make writing as simple a process as possible. For newbie diarists and budding authors taking their first steps, that could make the difference between getting into it, or getting overwhelmed and giving up.

Some of the best include:

On the one hand, these kinds of app tend to go off the beaten track of Word Processing as you know it. However, the pay-off is billed as greater support for the creative writing process.

Under lock and key

One last word of warning… Do be careful where you leave that diary. There is nothing like a burning motive to aid comprehension in a foreign language. And needing to know what somebody wrote about you can turn even the most linguaphobic in our midst into eager, urgent learners!

What are you waiting for? Happy journaling!

Programming in binary code

Love languages? Try programming!

Programming languages have a lot in common with human languages. For a start, they all have a very particular vocabulary and syntax. You need to learn the rules to assemble meaning. And both machine and human languages are tools for of turning concepts in our heads into action in the real world.

My love of languages blossomed around the same time as my fascination with computers. I’d tinker around in BASIC on my Commodore VIC-20 as a little kid, getting that early PC to just do things. (I know, that really dates me!) And today, I’m lucky enough to have made a career combining those two strands together as an educational software developer.

Works in progress

That said, it’s a career that never stands still. And, just as with human languages, it’s important to maintain and improve your skills all the time. In the same way that ‘fluency’ is an ill-defined and unhelpful ‘completion’ goal, you never really stop learning in the tech industry. There’s no end-point where you down tools, show your certificate, and say “I know it all now!“.

A fantastic source of development training for me of late has been the peer-tutorial site Udemy. I like the nature of the platform, allowing ordinary folk the chance to share their skills (and earn a bit of money from it, too). I also like the pick-and-choose nature of it, where you pay per course, rather than an all-in subscription. That’s one reason I always felt I wasn’t getting enough usage from the industry training giant, Lynda.com.

In fact the only downside to Udemy is its odd pricing model. Courses are listed under a ‘normal’, inflated price, but are almost always available at a discount. This discount varies, meaning that users end up course-watching until the price is lowered. Then they pounce, usually at a very reasonable rate of around £10 or so. I realise that the commercial psychology behind it is to increase the sense of bargain, but it does seem a little convoluted.

What I’m working on

In any case – there are some gems of courses on there. That goes especially for those who fancy learning some programming for educational applications. For a brief overview, here are some of the fantastic resources I’ve found useful:

Swift 4 and iOS

Apple introduced the Swift language as a successor to the clunky Objective-C language in recent years. It’s much easier to learn, in my opinion, and is more cross-skill compatible with other programming languages. Instructors have embraced the new language on Udemy, and amongst the best courses are the ones from tutorial guru Ray Wenderlich, and London-based developer Angela Yu. I intended to use their courses as refreshers, but have learnt a huge amount from both of them.

Android and Kotlin

Kotlin has a similar story to Swift, as a new language positioned to supersede and older one. That old one is Java, which is arguably a lot more useful and widespread than Objective-C. However, Kotlin is remarkably similar to Swift in syntax and usage. As such, it’s a pretty good choice to add to your collection if you are aiming for both iOS and Android development.

There is an old-school Android developer on Udemy, Tim Buchalka, who really knows his stuff. He’s my go-to for all my Android courses, and his Kotlin course is probably the most accessible and practical out there.

Not all hard work!

It’s not all hard work, of course. I take a couple of courses just out of interest or curiosity. As a programmer, I’ve always felt a little inferior about my design and illustration skills. Not only that, but I’m often a little jealous of how in the zone and mindful digital artists can get when working. To that end, I’ve been following a great course on creating digital art on the iPad with the Procreate app. Because not everything has to be about languages, programming or otherwise!

 

An owl, much like the Duolingo mascot!

Duolingo: Five reasons it’s a show-stopper for linguists

I was quite late to the Duolingo party. It might be a wee bit of jealousy, perhaps; as an educational app developer, you look at software like Duolingo and think: wow, that is an educational app. But lately, I’ve bitten the bullet, and have become completely hooked on the green owl (a euphemism everybody should become familiar with).

As one of the most popular apps – let alone educational ones – the web isn’t short of reasons to love it. But here are a few of the very special things that make Duolingo the golden standard for me.

Perfectly paced

The Duolingo environment uses a health system, borrowed from video gaming, to monitor how well you’re performing in a topic. If you start making lots of mistakes, you deplete your health reserves and have to wait until later to continue.

Now, as frustrating as this sounds, it’s a brilliant way to stop language junkies like me from overloading the brain. We all have our limits, and when you enjoy what you’re doing, you can forget where the most efficient place to stop is. The health approach is genius at forcing breaks when learning falls below optimum.

Silly sentences

I’m a huge fan of silly sentences as a memory aid and motivator in language learning. Playing with words in funny ways builds flexibility in a way that learning set phrases doesn’t. And Duolingo embodies the spirit of this to a tee.

No, I hope I will not need to say “cats are not food” if I visit Korea. But having translated that in the app, I’m unlikely to forget the words ‘cats’ and ‘food’, remembered with a silly smile.

Incidentally, a whole Twitter feed has sprung up to celebrate Duolingo’s comedic bent!

Unique content per language

Duolingo avoids a cookie-cutter approach to language learning by providing unique content in each language. Proceeding in exactly the same way in each language might not suit every tongue; instead, each course seems to have been put together from scratch by separate groups of subject experts. It’s quite refreshing to have multiple, bespoke paths available across the (ever-growing) range of languages on offer.

Deductive learning

Duolingo breaks free from the traditional presentation-practice mode of language learning. Sometimes, questions will contain a word or two that you haven’t come across before. As such, it can seem a bit more challenging, like ‘deep end’ learning.

However, rather than frustrating the learner, it encourages a bit of deduction. Can you make an educated guess? Or can you research the mystery word elsewhere? If you’ve had to work to find out the meaning rather than have it handed to you on a plate, it may well be more likely to stick. It highlights the unpredictability of language and the need to experiment and think on your feet – skills that are missing in many more conventional courses.

The Duolingo Universe is growing

Finally, Duolingo wins just on sheer choice. From a few initial language offerings, the app has grown to take in many more, bursting out of the traditional French/German/Spanish bubble. Finding apps for learning Polish – let alone good apps for learning Polish – was tricky in the not-so-distant past. Given the Duolingo treatment, there’s now an excellent solution for learning the basics.

What’s more, the app keeps growing; new languages are being worked on, while existing languages are expanding with new topics. It’s Aladdin’s Cave for a language junkie, and will spark some polyglot roving for inquisitive minds of all ages.

Duolingo has set the bar very high for educational apps in general, and language apps in particular. That certainly keeps educational app developers on their toes. But as a model for digital, self-paced learning, it’s an inspiration for the industry as much as it is a gem for linguaphiles. I’m already looking forward to the next languages to be added!

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

Anki, the vocab monster

Did you think learning vocabulary in a foreign language was just about memorising lists of words? Well, there’s a science to it. And Anki, a free flashcard learning system, has it down to a tee.

I’ve made frequent mention of the program in previous blog posts, and it’s formed a key part of my learning strategy since I started experimenting with it last year. I’m using it to drill and practise a couple of different languages, but here, I’ll focus on my experiences with it to achieve a decent working vocabulary in Polish.

Getting started

I hear it from several language-loving friends, and I felt the same at first: it’s a little bit intimidating at first. Its basic, unstyled interfaces can be offputting for the newcomer, and for certain things – like styling your cards – it is helpful to know a little tech magic like HTML. However, there are some helpful videos on the fundamentals at this link. And further assistance is just a YouTube search away, as there is a vast number of active users online, posting tips and hints. This excellent video introduction is a good example, and a great place to start.

Of course, all the magic is under the hood; it’s in the algorithms that Anki uses to drip-feed you vocab, day by day, and decide which words need more practice, and how often. It just requires a little work on your part, in curating your word lists.

feeding the Anki monster

There’s one key rule to maintaining pace with Anki: keep filling it up. Treat it like a vocabulary monster than needs a regular bucket of new words every so often to keep it fierce. You can add hundreds of words in one fell swoop at the beginning, and let the program do its stuff over the following weeks and months. It will select 25 new words from the bank a day, adding them to previously viewed words to recycle in each session. Eventually, it will run out of new words, and you’ll just be in memory maintenance mode.

Adding huge swathes of vocabulary in one go isn’t practical, though. It’s boring, for a start. And how do you decide on a source right at the beginning of your language learning journey? Also, vocab learning should be – in my opinion – an ongoing, lifelong process, and I feel my own use of Anki should reflect that.

Instead, then, I decided to just stay a few weeks ahead of myself with adding words. I chose a primary text for learning Polish – a very old edition of Teach Yourself Polish – and made a note to myself to add 2-3 chapters of vocabulary from it each week. I did this religiously, and within a few weeks I’d added a whole book’s worth of words.

However, making this a regular habit also allowed me to add in extra sources of vocabulary when I came across them. Along the way, I started to use the excellent Routledge Basic Polish – A Grammar and Workbook and Intermediate Polish – A Grammar and Workbook. As I found useful words in the examples, I’d add those in too. To keep things tidy, I’d add a sub-deck of flashcards to mark vocabulary from different sources separately.

Vocabulary mining

As well as books, I found two other useful ways to mine for vocabulary: self-interrogation and headline hunting.

In the first case, I’d actively interrogate my vocabulary as it was presented to me each day. If the words ‘shirt’, ‘trousers’ and ‘dress’ popped up, I’d ask myself: have I come across the word for ‘t-shirt’ yet? I’d check my vocab list, Google Translate the missing word, double-check it in Wiktionary, and add it to the bank if necessary. (I always use a couple of electronic resources with word-checking – never just a single one. Cross-referencing ensures you don’t end up with any dodgy mistranslations in your word bank!)

Headline hunting speaks for itself – I’d find a new site, and scan down the headlines for new or unusual words. Again, I’d Google Translate, check in Wiktionary and add to the bank. If I only do this once a week, it still generates a trickle of extra vocab to keep the monster fed.

Notably, I decided that vocabulary didn’t just mean ‘words’. Throughout my mining, I’d take model phrases, sayings, turns of speech – anything that I thought could be useful. Doing so meant that I could use Anki to revise simple structure, as well as dictionary items.

Tags are key

Crucially, I’d also add keywords to each vocabulary item. These were mainly based on broad topics that I could assign to each individual word; examples were ‘food and drink’, ‘clothes’, ‘colours’ and so on.

This turned out to be invaluable, given that the vocabulary was not thematically organised in the source material. After adding the words along with keyword tags, I could sort topically later on, pulling out all the ‘colours’ words for revision, for example. It’s especially satisfying when you call up a search list like this, and see how many different sources have gone into building your learning material.

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

First-pass learning

The very act of adding words to Anki doubles up as a sort of pre-learning phase. I never make a conscious effort to remember vocab as I’m typing it into the app. But inevitably, some items will catch my attention, and there’ll be a fair bit of residual recall when they pop up later in the program. I call this ‘first-pass learning’, and it’s often enough to provide a hook by the time the words get a second pass when popping up as scheduled.

This ‘learning proper’ phase could happen any time, in any place, thanks to the Anki app. I usually find myself squeezing those 10-15 minutes into train journeys – it’s a great way to fill otherwise ‘dead time’.

For Android users, the experience is still completely free, thanks to a third-party tool app on Google Play. However, for us iPhone people, the iOS app is a slightly pricey purchase at £23.99 / $24.99. Nonetheless, there are ways to approach that price tag on a budget of nothing. I bagged some free iTunes vouchers on Swagbucks for mine – see here for my experience with that!

Lieutenant Anki, language-learning regiment

The greatest thing is that Anki has regimented and regularised my vocabulary learning. Where I could be a little chaotic, now I have organisation. The system forces you to stay on top of things, too; miss a couple of days, and the list of words to learn and revise grows bigger and bigger. Stick to little and often and you won’t work up a backlog!

I’ve now thoroughly learnt over 1000 Polish vocabulary items. In fact, Anki has been so successful at drilling them, my vocab level has far outstripped my grammar – one possible downside to blitzing your words like this! But as I learn grammar at a slightly less frenetic pace, having a large knowledge of words to use with new structures is definitely a bonus. And I’m still experimenting with ways to drill grammar and structure in Anki, too.

In short, I’m now hooked on Anki. I’m proud of my curated word lists, as they are a record of how far I’ve travelled on each language learning journey. They’re highly personal, and, for that, I’m all the more motivated to work with them and learn them. If you’ve ever tried and have felt put off, please persevere – it’s definitely worth it!