The Parthenon at the Acropolis, Athens. Image from freeimages.com.

Eating my way back to Greek

Sometimes an old, long-neglected language project will rise up and demand attention again. “Remember me, old friend?” The reasons can be many. But the call can be hard to resist. Over the past few weeks, my former passion for Greek bubbled up from the linguistic Lethe, that river of oblivion where loved ones drift off to be forgotten. And the trigger? Food. This is fast becoming a theme…

Now, this taste for all things Greek is nothing new. I was always a bit of an unabashed Hellenohile. Some of my earliest solo expeditions, learning about the world as a travel-mad youth, were to Greece.  In fact, my first trip abroad on my own was island-hopping back in 1997, armed with just a one-way ticket and a rucksack. Admittedly, it wasn’t a complete success – I had money stolen from my debit card and had to come home early and dejected (although a happy ending: everything was reimbursed by the bank on my return, thankfully). 

Richard West-Soley in Athens, Greece in 1997

On a Greek adventure in 1997.

But naive rookie tourist mishaps aside, there is no denying the touch of paradise to the region. Cast an eye over a Santorini or Mykonos sunset and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

And yes, Greece and Cyprus have brought some of my all-time favourite entries to the Eurovision Song Contest. You know me by now – Eurovision is always somewhere in the language learning mix. Before I even began to learn in earnest, I knew a host of terms of varying usefulness. These included αγάπη (love), άνοιξη (spring), αστέρι (star), ελπίδα (hope), Φωτιά (fire), θάλασσα (sea), σταφύλι (grape) and all the other lovely things people tended to sing about in Greek at Eurovision.

Yes, songs about grapes. Food was connecting me to Greek even back then.

Greek Cobbler

In fits and starts over the years, I cobbled together what you might call holiday Greek. Although I probably never strayed beyond A1, I have always been pretty proud of that achievement. After all, it was one of my very first self-taught language projects. Very few materials were available besides phrasebooks and basic primers back then, mostly tailored to holidaymakers. But it was enough for me to Get By In Greek, as one of those 90s titles went.

Learning Greek as a purely functional, transactional language for travelling meant that there was rarely much academic rigour to that study. But as a result, when I do come to use it, even today it seems more serviceable and everyday useful than some of my more ‘serious’ languages.

Also – and this is a consequence of the performance pressure we put ourselves under with close, considered study – I think I might even be a little less nervous about speaking a language I openly admit is (very) imperfect but useable. If it works when popping to the φούρνος (bakery), that’s enough for me.

A Taste of Greek

But back to food. And there is honestly nothing quite like Greek food. It is arguably the best comfort cuisine in the world. And a chance TV encounter earlier this year stirred that long-time love of Hellenic language and culture.

Akis Petretzikis already has a big following in Greece. So the BBC show Ready, Steady, Cook must have seemed like the perfect springboard to a more international following.

And he is ready for it – he has a ton of content online, from his own recipe website to the full gamut of social media feeds, full of foodspiration. But as it stands, much of that is in Greek, tailoring for that faithful home audience.

So if you really want to access his edible world of wonder, you would do well to dig out the Ελληνικά.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Akis Petretzikis (@akis_petretzikis) on

As far as social media is concerned, live content streaming is one of the best and most accessible sources of authentic materials for language learners. Watching in real time is a brilliant way to feel connected to your target language right now, in the real world. And throughout lockdown, Akis* has been live-streaming from his kitchen regularly, making – and eating – the tastiest samples of Greek cooking for his fans. Let me tell you, it is hard not to get hooked back into the country and culture when a plateful of πορτοκαλόπιτα (orange pie) is staring you in the face.

*other Greek chefs are available. See this for starters!

Not to mention the fact that Greek, at least to my ear, comes across as one of the most clearly articulated European languages. It has a staccato, precise flow that somehow matches your perception of the word written on the page, without everything mushing together as it comes out of the mouth.

(As an aside – I have no academic backup at all to claim this of Greek. I’d love to hear of research into the clarity of Greek speech patterns if you are aware of any!)

As a perpetual Greek beginner, this makes it easier to pick out familiar words in normal, free-flowing and sometimes very complicated speech. Listening to those feeds, that handful of familiar words just pops out: γάλα (milk), φράουλα (strawberry), ψωμί (bread)… and it is so satisfying to feel like you understand. Even just a little.

Greek Revival

So whats does my Greek revival look like? Well, a bit of Duolingo now and again is a good (if predictable) start. Appropriately, food vocab one of the first things you’ll learn in many of these courses. That has been immediately useful!

Brushing up on Greek food vocab in Duolingo

You probably know what comes next, fellow language enthusiast. With the Greek bug taking hold, out came all the old books, including one of my first ever language learning purchases, Linkword Greek.

But was that enough? Of course not. My copy of Essential Greek Grammar arrived in the post today. Incorrigible, I am.

Aren’t books almost as delicious as food, though?

Has anything inspired you back to your language learning roots lately? Please let us know in the comments below or on Twitter!

Books for learning Greek

Out come the old books.

A picture of a little yellow flower. Image from freeimages.com

It’s the Little Things : Serendipity and Lockdown Learning

It’s the little things that keep us going in challenging times. And no exception this week, which brought a tranche of serendipitous rediscoveries that kept the housebound language learning ticking over, preserving at least a modicum of precious lockdown sanity.

Many of us now have a heap of extra time on our hands at home right now. So clearly, many of these archaeological finds proceed from the fact that a lot of surprise spring-cleaning is going on. And from old, forgotten but effective study tools, to long-misplaced books, the little things keep coming.

It was the spirit of serendipity that gave me the biggest language-learning smile-moment of the week: my old Bose SoundTouch 20 WiFi speakers, resurrected to new life.

A picture of my Bose SoundTouch 20 Wifi speaker, playing the Norwegian radio station NRK P2.

Long shelved media equipment comes into its own. My old Bose SoundTouch 20 now serves as a precious connection to target language countries.

I’d shelved this heavy-duty media beauty some years ago, as it lacked BlueTooth. Instead, it works across WiFi only, interfacing with devices on the same broadband connection. Smaller,  more portable Bluetooth speakers just seemed less cumbersome and easier to connect to now and again.

But what has this to do with language learning?

technically magic little things

Well, the SoundTouch has a special magic trick: six chunky preset buttons sitting on the top of its hefty frame. Once paired with your device, you can tune these to Spotify playlists or world radio stations of your choice. And, after that, you don’t even need your device to be connected to play them. Just tap a preset button and it bursts into life.

I put these to great use all those years ago, when the machine was shiny and new. I tuned three of the presets to foreign language music playlists on my Spotify account. The other three, I pointed at various radio station live feeds from countries of study. Then, whenever the mood took me, I could immerse myself in the target language at the touch of a button, no fuss at all.

How could I have forgotten about this wonderful piece of equipment?

Needless to say, it is sitting proudly in the living room again. This time round, it is primed with two foreign music playlists, and four radio stations: NRK P2 (Norwegian), RÚV Rás 1 (Icelandic), NDR Info (German) and Polskie Radio 24 (Polish). Instant immersion at a tap. And as always, the quicker and easier a language learning habit is to implement, the more I do it. It doesn’t get much quicker and easier than button-pushing.

What’s more, it has become a valuable portal to a global village while travel is shut down. If you are struggling with your big world suddenly feeling very small and restricted, you can take advantage of this remedy without fancy equipment. Even placing the link to a free radio app on the first screen of your phone will make the world feel a little closer.

Tidy little things

Bringing objects of love and fascination closer is a recurring theme. Not only forgotten overseas sounds, but long-missed books resurfaced during these long, quiet evenings.

The aim of the exercise was to move the books from my most active language learning / maintenance projects to sit right next to my desk for easier access. This was no mean feat; thanks to a rather hectic peripatetic lifestyle pre-shutdown, there was quite a bit of disorder to tackle.

The resulting bookshelf rummage was a revelation. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are, how much we have. From the depths of obscurity, I plucked a wealth of beautiful books that had almost entirely slipped my mind. Not defunct old tomes, but materials worth going over again (or for the first time, in some cases – the shame of it).

Treasured books are indeed some of the very best little things.

A picture of some of my language books, organised neatly on shelves.

Is there anything more satisfying than reorganising your home library?

Talking of serendipity, as I sit here writing this listening to NRK P2, my favourite Norwegian language programme, Språkteigen, pops on unexpectedly. I always listen to this as a podcast, never on broadcast radio. It feels somehow more special now. All the little things in their rightful place again; the language gods are happy.

What have you rediscovered in lockdown from your language learning past? Let us know in the comments!

A picture of a freshly cooked chocolate brownie. Image from freeimages.com.

Baking up a distraction

Such a thoroughly  strange week draws to a close. The first of many weeks, no doubt, by the end of which strange will be normal. After the first run of stay-at-home social distancing, I expected to have blitzed my languages. Instead, what have I been spending my excess time on? Baking. Yes, consuming home-made cake instead of grammars. What sort of procrastinating distraction is this?

A simple sponge cake on a plate with a blue rim pattern

Cake by Rich – it doesn’t look much, but it was mighty tasty.

A bit out of the blue, too. A long-time lover of fast food conveniences, I was as surprised as anyone to find myself whisking and whirling in the kitchen. But then, strange things happen in strange times.

I guess that in unusual, stressful periods, we reach out for ways to feel in control. Given the scare stories in the media on supermarket supply lately, cooking from scratch has seemed a good way to feel in command of my personal food chain. That makes baking quite a useful distraction, actually. And, after all, beyond the languages, cooking is one thing I decided I could do with spending more time on in terms of self-improvement during these isolated weeks.

But could it be… well, a bit more languagey?

A cultural distraction

As ever, the online polyglot community came good. For some reason, baking and languages intersect quite neatly for a lot of my friends and colleagues on social media. In fact, I am the one who is late to the party; many have been sharing baking pics for as long as I have followed them, their culinary posts nestling surprisingly comfortably amongst the motivational language learning anecdotes.

And why not? Food is a cultural journey in itself. Instagram attests to the appetite for food stories from trips overseas. If anything, the connection had been staring me in the face for years. One of the biggest treats of exploring somewhere new is, for me, the food. While the planes are grounded and the borders are closed, I will really miss that.

Or maybe, I don’t have to. Within minutes of proudly sharing my tasty (but rather flat) sponge cake creation on Twitter, I had a recipe for Scandi-bread (in Swedish, joy!) and directions for Polish egg bread in my DMs. Yum.

Now this I can see myself incorporating into my language learning regime. Baking – and eating – my way through the cultural landscape of my target languages.

Cake is the spice of life

Variety, of course, is something to strive for in both language learning and everyday life. And it has rarely felt as important to follow that rule as now.

And that leads me excitedly (and rather unsubtly) on to #LangJam! No, not cake filling, but my first time taking part in the annual surprise language dabbling weekend. As well as the international baking, this seemed like a great way to inject a bit more sugar and spice into my routine.

As for the flavour, the great jam sorting hat gave me Ukrainian for my first taste. Now, where are those recipes for yabluchnyk?

Have you rustled up your own language learning / baking crossovers? Any recipes you’d recommend? Please share in the comments!

A book lying open with its pages fluttering. Image from freeimages.com.

Audible Again : Rediscovering Lost Love

Don’t you love a good online subscription? Netflix, Evernote, Amazon Prime – these language learner-friendly platforms have earned their monthly fee many times over for me. But I also love good value, and I won’t let myself to sign up for a new monthly service until I’m absolutely sure I’ll make the most of it. And I have to admit, I deliberated long and hard over signing back up to Audible this month.

Many moons ago, I was a contented lover of the audiobooks behemoth. But after exhausting the list of pop science and psych books I usually plumped for, it all started to feel a bit samey. My passion for the platform waned, and I eventually cancelled.

Lost that loving feeling

The problem was simply that we had grown apart. Our interests were no longer a good match. Pop-sci could only take me so far. Truly, my heart was looking to plug a big, language-learning sized hole. There was a lack of polyglot love.

This relationship just wasn’t going to work any more.

That was, until our paths crossed again, years later, and I felt a little of that former affection stirring my curiosity. So often it happens this way when it comes to serendipitous encounters with forgotten former flames.

It was searching for the audio version of Olly Richard’s Short Stories in Icelandic that Audible popped up, beaming and enthusiastic. A free first month with two free credits, with the option to cancel any time. What a no-brainier – by signing back up, I won what I sought for nothing. If, after that, it looked like things were not meant to be, I could just ride back off into the sunset.

Audible Actually

This was my chance. Test the water, no commitments on either side. A friendly catch-up over coffee, if you will, to see where the land lay. Could that flame of passion reignite, and bring a happy ending to this private screening of Audible Actually?

Spoiler alert: the script has a happy ending. Audible had changed. The spark was back!

Not only are all of Olly Richard’s short stories volumes available in native speaker narration (some not quite out yet at the time of writing). But there is a veritable treasure of books from other European countries too, available in the original language.

In fact, there is so much material that the advanced search options now include a language setting, so you can hone in on your specific love interests and language passions. French, German and Spanish turn out to be particularly prolific languages of love for Audible nowadays.

Clandestine interests

Here’s the thing: not all of the platform’s language-learning cards are on display at first glance. Like all things love, there is a little mystery. Namely, not all the audiobook languages appear in the search settings list.

Take Norwegian. While Danish sits happily and boldly in the menu, lovingly representing Scandinavia, I was disappointed to see norsk missed off the menu. But a little search on a Norwegian title threw up some results. Phew – we were still compatible!

This is the case with the Norwegian versions of the Harry Potter books. They are all there – you just have to find the titles before searching. Those are easy enough to find on Wikipedia, amongst other places. Lovers should never have secrets – but sometimes you do have to ask the right questions.

Happy endings

Everybody loves a happy ending, don’t they? I have professed my commitment and will be hanging around long beyond my free trial.

But there is more than enough love to go round for everyone. Why not have an on-the-house nose around the library yourself? You never know what might grab your heart.

Are you working the audiobook circuit as a language lover? What gems have you discovered recently?

Boxsets of DVDs on a shelf

New joy from old DVDs : The resources under our noses

Do you ever get the resource itch? That hankering for new books, DVDs and other resources in your target language, however many are still unfinished on your shelves?

Well, I get this a lot. And lately, it has been particularly chronic.

It was pondering over ordering the (quite heftily priced) Game of Thrones auf Deutsch that I realised it. I still have a ton of engaging, foreign language learning resources under my nose. They have been lying, forgotten for years, on my shelves of old DVDs.

A treasure of DVDs

It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Back in the day when DVDs were still the thing, before Netflix rendered them all a bit quaint, I used to go out of my way to choose boxsets with interesting language options.

And often, production companies would be quite generous with the options. They overloaded those discs with as many dubbed versions as possible, maximising their market appeal.

The back of a boxset of DVDs showing the different language soundtracks available.

DVDs can offer a generous helping of foreign language soundtracks.

It was building up to an iTalki conversation session this week that I started digging through my old collection for some German maintenance material. I had forgotten what a wealth of it there already was, hiding on my shelves.

But there’s more. Revisiting it all, years after they first caught my eye (and wallet), there were plenty of nice surprises. Some of those soundtracks and subtitle languages weren’t on my radar at all the first time round. Now, I was discovering all sorts of things that past Rich hadn’t a clue would be of interest to future Rich.

Needless to say, I’ve spent a good chunk of time this week enjoying past seasons of Medium in German, with Norwegian subtitles. It’s definitely saved my bank balance – although German Game of Thrones still sits happily on my wish list!

Old school benefits

In these days of podcasts and foreign language streaming on Netflix, the idea of DVDs can seem a bit, well, old school. But chances are you have a lot of this material to hand, even if it lies stored away in attics and cupboards.

And more often than not, if you’re like me, there is still a lot of use to be had from it. There is no way that I ever watched all those episodes of Medium in every language and subtitle option available. Waste not, want not!

Lost… again

There’s also something warming about getting lost again in series you used to love, rediscovering them through different voices and tongues. Consuming material that fills me with joy, rather than what I feel I ought to consume, was a language learning epiphany. There’s little that speaks to the heart more than a beloved old TV series you forked money out to own.

Of course, you know the (not uncontroversial) ending to Lost now… But just look at all the hidden twists, secret details and Easter eggs there are to spot when you go back to those episodes.

And that’s not to mention the powerful motivator that nostalgia can be when selecting language learning resources.

Ethical economy

If your shelves are wanting, then fear not. Old DVDs also represent a route for buying fresh resources more ethically, too. Charity shops are heaving with old films and TV series, often for as little as 50p a pop. Buying second hand breathes new life into old materials that might otherwise be destined for the dump.

And after you’ve eked the most out of your old favourites, consider paying the benefits forward. Donate them to a good cause, or set up a sharing circle with other language learner friends. We can create a whole sub-economy in recycled, dubbed classics!

Give your old DVDs some language learning love. What have you rediscovered lately?

Listening can be one of the most challenging skills in a foreign language. Image from freeimages.com.

The Listening Monster: Language teacher tips for taking the sting out

Same objectives, different worlds – the polyglot and school classroom teaching communities strive for identical goals, but it often feels like they are leagues apart. It’s a perfect match waiting to be realised, as both have so much to learn from one another.

That’s why it’s always a hugely positive eye-opener when I attend teacher conferences. I’m no longer a classroom teacher myself, but I’m lucky enough to remain part of that world through my work creating language resources for schools. And as a lone ranger language learner in my free time, there are always lots of tips for tweaking my own study. This year’s #TeachLang conference was no exception, with a focus on that notoriously challenge foreign language skill, listening.

Listening: The dreaded monster

It’s no secret that listening – and actually comprehending – is one of the big, bad, dreaded monsters of language learning, whether in the classroom or for independent learners. Perhaps like me, you’ve given podcasts a go in a language you’re working on, only to feel disillusioned at how little you understand. Or maybe you feel flummoxed by those oh-so-fast responses by native speakers when travelling.  Either way, listening can be flippin’ hard.

Teachers know this only too well. It can be a challenge to keep students feeling confident with such an overwhelming, brainpower-intensive task. Thankfully, there were some excellent nuggets of classroom wisdom on offer at the conference.

Martine Pillette in particular summed up the right initial approach to listening with her focus on tuning down the pressure to get everything at once. In short: you can get a lot from authentic listening resources without understanding every single word. A shame nobody told that to my inner critic years ago!

In this kinder-to-yourself method, you focus on mini-tasks at more abstracted levels instead of word-for-word comprehension straight away. For example, start by simply trying to identify the general topic of a segment. Listen out for individual words to note down, rather than grasp whole sentences. In essence, train yourself to catch gist. This kind of focused listening reminds me a lot of Benny Lewis’ active method for consuming podcasts.

Prediction exercises

Dovetailing into that was a lovely segment from Jennifer Wozniak around the use of prediction in listening exercises. Key to the predictive approach is preparation. With some basic knowledge of what the listening text is about, which words do you expect to come up?

Take a podcast on technology in Icelandic, for example. You might figure that the words tölva (computer), farsími (mobile phone) and gagnvirkur (interactive) are probable candidates for inclusion. Before listening, note them down – look them up in a dictionary if needed – and see how many of them come up on your first pass. You can tick them off, bingo-style, as you hear them. How many did you get?

Jennifer Wozniak talking at the Linguascope #TeachLang Teach Languages conference, February 2020

Jennifer Wozniak talking at the Linguascope #TeachLang Teach Languages conference, February 2020

These are just a couple of the fantastic classroom techniques that teachers are sharing to take stress out of listening. They hardly scratch the surface, of course, and it’s well worth a rummage in live stream archive of the Linguascope Facebook page to see what else a bit of back-to-school can do for us.

As for me, I’m just off to play some Icelandic listening bingo. Wish me luck!

What techniques do you use to cope with listening practice in your foreign languages? Let us know in the comments!

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!

Clontarf, Dublin: achievement is often about the journey, not the destination.

Achievement on our terms: language learning as the joy of exploration

If ambition drives you to excel in a field as (traditionally) academic as languages, chances are you are achievement-oriented. Striving for success – however we choose to measure it – is part and parcel of loving the polyglot craft. Achievement gives us a buzz.

As independent learners, however, we are free to define achievement however it works best for us. It’s something that occurred to me on a trip to Dublin this weekend, a break that prompted me to dip my now-and-again toe into the Irish language once more.

Strictly casual

You might have a similar relationship with one of your languages. Irish fascinates me. It is both somehow familiar, yet so different from the Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages I usually work with. It fills a missing piece in my understanding of the Indo-European family. For all that, I love dabbling in it through the odd couple of lessons on Duolingo, or a leaf through a basic Irish grammar.

That said, me and Irish are involved on a strictly casual basis. I have no particular goal in mind. No exams, no trip to the Gaeltacht to chat with locals. I just enjoy exploring when the mood takes me.

The way I approach Irish reminds me of the ‘down the rabbit hole’ experience many have with encyclopaedia site like Wikipedia. Browsing a single article can lead the reader to click link after link, hopping from one article to another. Exploration is the end in itself, the achievement won. Whatever the content, however idle the amble, we are just that little bit richer at the end for it.

The result? Walking around public spaces in Ireland is now a series of ‘aha!’ moments. This weekend, it chuffed me to pieces to recognise the occasional word and structure in the Irish language signs  in and around Dublin.

My proudest (and geekiest) achievement: recognising eclipsis on a sign for a men’s swimming area. It’s a lovely moment when you realise that even the most superficial amount of learning can help make sense of the world around you.

https://twitter.com/richwestsoley/status/1147912238373769221

Tantalising tangents

Achieving via the tangential route is nothing new for me, and you have likely experienced it too. At school, I was a diligent and effective student. But regularly, my teachers would drag me back on course as I’d drift off on some off-the-beaten-track knowledge expedition, away from the prescribed curriculum and onto (for me) exciting, uncharted territory.

In language classes, I was eager to express what had meaning for me – usually what I had been up to lately. Without fail, I’d thumb straight past the pages on “a strawberry ice cream, please” to the appendix reference on the past tense. That was where my spark of interest lay. Learning by personal detour meant that my sense of achievement was so much greater.

As my language journey progressed to college, one route led me to ‘collecting’ terms for birds and other wildlife in German. Useful for my A-level exam prep? Perhaps not. But fascinating and fun to the nascent language geek in me? You bet!

It hit homes in this lovely tweet I spotted recently, which neatly sums up our freedom to learn:

 Achievement on your terms

The fact is that the polyglot community has already uprooted language success from its traditional environment of formalised, assessed learning. Freed from the shackles of exam performance, there are as many reasons to learn and enjoy as there are methods to learn.

We are incredibly lucky to be part of a learning community that minimises achievement pressure like this. Even if that achievement is simply the joy of exploration and wonder, it is no less valid than acing written exams on a university course.

We are our own measure of success. Learn what, and how, you love. And let that be your achievement!

A stash of tourist leaflets and guides in various foreign languages.

Lovely Leaflets: Making the most of foreign language tourist ephemera

What have I been doing this week? Well, apart from obsessing over topping Duolingo’s new global leaderboards? Mostly, I’ve been hacking my way through reams of foreign language leaflets and tourist material I’ve amassed over the past few months of travel.

Despite a fixation with order and decluttering, I have to  admit that I let the piles of paper mount up. When faced with racks of foreign language material on holiday, my eyes light up. I can’t help but feast on the freebies. From talking to fellow polyglots, I am certainly not alone.

So how can we feed our fascination, but ensure we make the most of these fun, free resources?

Scrapbooking is your space-saving friend

First things first: these things take up room!

“Kiitos” (thanks) on a grocery bag from a Helsinki supermarket. Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

A trip to Finland resulted in bags of extra material in Finnish and Swedish!

The fact is that few of us have room to store wads and wads of paper from a lifetime of travelling. We call this kind of material ephemera for a reason: it is not meant to hang around long.

As a teacher, I would store authentic materials like this to use in lessons. The physical resources actually had a use. Now, as a learner, my instinct might still be to hoard them, but most of the time they simply end up lying around. It is far too easy to forget about your stash of leaflets. My cache has often sat, forgotten, in a side pocket of my suitcase for weeks.

The good news: this is what digital scrapbooking was made for. I use digital scrapbooks to create snapshots of all sorts of cultural ephemera from trips. Leaflets fit the bill perfectly.

Scrapbooking tools

You can get started with any note-taking software or app. Create a document, snap your items, and annotate.  My tool of choice is the brilliant Evernote. But Microsoft OneNote is perhaps even better for the task, since you can position image elements more freely on each page. Most importantly, both platforms are free to use at entry level.

Alternatively, document scanning apps can capture your material and turn it into PDFs. I use Scanner Pro on iOS, but there are many alternatives across platforms, including free apps like Adobe Scan. Most of these apps will also hook up to online drives like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive, making sure your material is backed up safely.

Leaflets captured, you can safely offload the originals into the bin. But remember to recycle!

How to work with leaflets as learning resources?

To make our leaflet-foraging worthwhile, we need to actively use these resources. And the great thing about digitally storing your leaflets is that we can simply type your notes and workings straight into the same documents that contain the scans. Nice and tidy!

There are myriad activities and approaches for active consumption of the material. The trick is to be as creative as you can with them to eke out the most benefit. Here are a few simple exercises for starters:

Vocabulary mining

The simplest activity is simply mining the material for new words and phrases. If you are still at a more elementary stage of the language, focus on the titles and headings. At a more advanced stage, you can introduce grammar tasks such as highlighting all the verbs or other parts of speech. Interrogate that material for as much new knowledge as you can.

Translation

Try to produce an idiomatic, flowing translation of the material in your native language. Note where it is necessary to express the ideas quite differently from language to language. Are there phrases that are difficult to reproduce exactly in your own?

Play the interpreter

Imagine you are taking a group of friends or family to the attraction. Read or skim the material a section at a time. Then, put it down between each reading and interpret the gist out loud, from memory, in your native language. This is great practice for actually performing the task for real-life travel companions!

In your own words

A real test of language mastery is creative production. Can you say the same thing in several ways? Paraphrasing and summarising are fantastic leaflet drill activities for this skill. Read a section of material, then look away. Try, from memory, to reproduce the material in your own words. This can be spoken, written, or (ideally) both.

Local language for local leaflets

Remember, these are local leaflets for local people! Well, not quite. But be enthusiastically cautious about leaflets in languages other than the local one for that attraction. Most of the time, professional translators, who are native speakers, will have translated the documents. However, this is not always the case. We have all spotted errors in even the most careful of translations into our own languages.

As a rule, it is always safest to grab the guide in the actual language of the country you are visiting. That said, this never stopped me snaffling literature in German and Polish when visiting the Book of Kells in Dublin. And it shouldn’t curb your enthusiasm either! Just regard such material with a careful and critical eye.

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

These guidelines should help inject some purpose and organisation into your pursuit of lovely leaflets. Above all, just enjoy this excellent – and free! –  source of learning material without getting lost in sea of paper. Oh – and leave a few behind for everybody else, too!

How do you learn from the material you pick up on your travels? Do you have specific leaflet-learning ideas that help? Share them in the comments below!

The World (image from freeimages.com)

Challenging labels : exploiting globalism for language learning

Enjoying a cold stout from an East London microbrewery for my birthday, I glanced down at the label and caught a real treat. There was the satisfyingly short list of ingredients, repeated in multiple languages on the label.

Hoxton Stout - complete with ingredients in multiple languages!

Hoxton Stout – complete with ingredients in multiple languages!

Geeking over a polyglot product label is an observation that gives away my generation. I belong to that not-so-distant cohort of kids who cross that divide where the Internet flickered to life, the world became smaller and the everyday became truly global.

As a language-obsessed kid, this kind of access to target language was something rare and special. Any snippet of foreign language was valuable. A bit of French, German, Spanish on the back of a packet was a little piece of magic.

In today’s world, languages are everywhere.

It gets harder by the year to remember that it wasn’t always like this. For one thing, legislation on food labelling is (thankfully) tighter today. There’s much more to read on your packets than ever before.

But that explosion in multiple languages is down to a world of increasingly interconnected flows across vast distances. Those flows continue to be a rich mine of source material for linguists, however much we now take them for granted.

At the mercy of markets

The specific languages that we read on the ephemera around us depend on some complex, fluctuating chains. The ebbs and flows of globalism change regularly, and what seems common  one year can disappear the next. Language learning label hunters are at the mercy of markets when it comes to scouring products for vocabulary.

As my Hoxton stout shows, you can strike it lucky. Your chosen tongues can turn up in the most unexpected of places. Norwegian in a Shoreditch pub – who’d have thought?

But sometimes, you have to just work with what the markets give you.

In the UK right now, it is wonderfully easy to find labelling in the languages of Eastern Europe. In the current setup, European supply chains see products manufactured at a more favourable cost in the East, then shipped across the whole continent. To cater for multiple local markets, labels now include the whole gamut of languages in lists of ingredients and instructions.

Incidentally, the Open University has an excellent (now archived) course on this very subject: DD205 Living in a globalised world. Well worth checking out if you are interested in learning more.

Keep an open mind

For a learner of Polish, these arrangements are very welcome. But even if those languages are unfamiliar, or not yet on your radar, perhaps the exotic ingredient words are enough to pique your interest in some of these lesser-studied gems.

After all, perhaps we can respond to languages, as learners, much as consumers to product markets. Our choices about what to learn are broadened, honed, funnelled – and of course, limited – by the materials that land in front of us thanks to these global flows.

Constantly surrounded by a certain language? Work with it!

So how can we bend this tide of globalism, with its flood of goods, to our own language learning?

Hunt them down

Discounters like Poundland are a perfect place to find polyglot goods with global spread, since they are mass-produced for economies of scale without the expensive localisation of premium products. Once you find a rich seam of them, the sheer volume of multilanguage packets will busy you on endless shopping trips.

Globalism takes it one step further, too. Increasingly, whole outlets, as well as individual products from overseas, can find their way to your local High Street. Danish learners are in luck in the UK, for instance: branches of Flying Tiger are popping up in all sorts of cities, chock full of dansk-branded goodies. That’s not to mention Muji for Japanese students. Likewise, lucky French learners can head to L’Occitane for a vocab hit.

Flying Tiger Danish pencils - a linguist's spoils of globalism!

Flying Tiger Danish blyanter
a linguist’s spoils of globalism!

Seek them near – and far

You don’t have to wait for the products to come to you, either. Bringing things back from holiday is a great way to learn from packaging and feed your enthusiasm with the curiosity of others. You can, for example, turn overseas products into quirky talking points with friends. In my experience, few fail to be (at least briefly!) intrigued by Kvikklunsj, the Norwegian incarnation of the KitKat. 🇳🇴🍫😁

No wonder. It’s not only covered in Bokmål, but is a staple of Norwegian everyday life. Language, culture and chocolate – could linguaphiles really ask for more? 😋

Chocolate – and language – are meant for sharing. Delight in the opportunity to show friends and colleagues your world by bringing items like this back as post-trip gifts and explaining what they are. Explaining and teaching to others is a fantastic way to consolidate your own learning. You might even win a few curious converts to the polyglot cause!

Consume them actively

These products are manufactured to be enjoyed. So as well as consuming your chocolate or biscuits with gusto, devour that vocabulary actively too. Look up each item on those ingredients lists and turn them into concrete Anki notes. Make Quizlet or Educandy activities to test yourself on them. Look up sukker, miód and Hagebutte on Wiktionary for more detailed lexical info. Take your search further on the relevant language version of Wikipedia, too.

Always consider polyglot products a jumping point for vocabulary exploration.

To keep track of your finds, log them in an electronic scrapbook. Multimedia notebooks Evernote and OneNote are perfect for this: simply snap your wrappers into a note, and type relevant vocabulary explanations underneath for reference.

At this point, you may shudder: what have I become? Collecting electronic snippings of sweet wrappers and crisp packets? Don’t worry: Just pat yourself on the back and think of the language learning!

Globalism and the global village linguist

Even for those without grand travel plans, foreign language labels are a reminder that there is somebody else out there. Somebody, even, who might like to enjoy that Hoxton Stout in a market far, far away. And if language learners appreciate one thing, it is the nature of today’s global village.

When the tectonic plates of globalism shift – as may happen, for example, in the aftermath of current political changes in the UK – those flows can change drastically. The label languages of tomorrow may be quite different. We may feel helpless in the face of this. But perhaps a more proactive way to view it, as a linguist, is as opportunity: new languages, new cultures, new people.

Life, like language, is in constant flux: adapt, consume and enjoy it.

As contemporary linguists, we enjoy an unprecedented level of foreign language in everyday places. Seize the opportunities, and ride the flows of globalism. You too can get (linguistically) rich quick!