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!