Wading into the jungle of a new language course. Image from freeimages.com

Recon in the course book jungle: forward loading vocab to breeze through books

You know the feeling. A shiny new course book, fresh from the bookshop. All that potential, just sitting there, between the covers. There’s a joy and anticipation at the sight of a language learning book that only linguaphiles can know.

But where to start?

Sometimes, wading into the jungle, simply plodding straight through from page one, is harder than we would like. Somehow it can all feel a little… passive.

But there is a better way. Something that has recently proven especially effective for me and my course books is forward loading vocabulary. It’s an explorative, preliminary approach that can really increase what we get out of traditional courses like the Teach Yourself and Colloquial series. It turns passive plodding into active consumption of material.

So what is it all about?

Book recon

Don’t worry – there is no need to put off opening those pages immediately. Forward loading vocabulary is all about diving into your nice, new book straight away.

But that first dive is not to work methodically, and linearly, through the texts and language exercises. Instead, you initially steam through, chapter by chapter, combing the word lists, grammar explanations and dialogues to build your own vocabulary repository first.

Think of it as a language book recon mission. You are heading out on an expedition through the material to see what the terrain is like, and make your own map before you set off for real.

And how do you make that map? Using the vocabulary building tools of your choice, with a little bit of cross-referencing from dictionary sites and similar materials.

Preloading vocabulary from the first chapters of the Teach Yourself Finnish course in Anki

Preloading vocabulary from the first chapters of the Teach Yourself Finnish course in Anki

As for the level of granularity you choose – whether just key words or every lexeme, full phrases or the dictionary forms of individual items, for example – that is up to you. Anything you do counts as great prep for starting the book proper, so every bit of vocab mining helps.

I used the technique preparing for a recent language learning mini-break to Finland. Taking Teach Yourself Finnish (now Complete Finnish) as the key course, I first scoured the initial chapters for vocabulary. I collected this all in Anki, cross-referencing with Wiktionary to check spelling and add information (like infinitive forms, plurals and such like) as I went. To be particularly thorough, I even included the target language instructions, like harjoitellaan (“let’s practise”). Nothing is without value – it’s all extra word power.

With that done, I had primed myself for the material before I even started. Not only that, but I had created an interactive, daily vocab activity drill regime to run alongside the course material. I was ready to start Teach Yourself Finnish proper!

The benefits of preloading course vocab

As already mentioned, the obvious benefit of forward loading is priming, specifically repetition priming.  This cursory familiarity with course material is a kind of pre-learning, and sets the stage for greater recall even before you even start in earnest.

Our brains pick up much more than we might realise from a first look. Having worked through all those words initially means that connections form – and deep learning occurs – much more readily the second time around.

Own that vocab

That’s not to mention the boost to your sense of ownership over that learning material. Working carefully and creatively with vocabulary is a fantastic way simply to care more about it. And caring more is a sure route to greater motivation. Tools like Anki allow for all sorts of customisations that help make those decks your own.

Managed, two-track learning

Depending on the vocab tools you use, you can benefit from some solid learning science, too. Anki, for example, drip-feeds flash cards to the user at intervals based on an optimised formula.

In my Finnish experiment, I found that Anki’s 10-a-day standard pace matched quite well the speed at which a learner would usually progress through a text book. That makes for a complimentary, tandem vocab learning track to go alongside your course work.

Savvy learning

Creating a separate glossary also makes you a savvy learner. You can keep tabs on exactly the kind of words and phrases you are covering in the language. Not only that: you can even give a rough guesstimate on how much you know of that language, in much the same way as Duolingo measures progress in its use of the term ‘lexemes’ (these units are exposed on the Duome site, for example).

Anki, for example, will report the number of items in your decks via the Browse tab. If you are ever frustrated by woolly questions like “how well do you know language X?”, then an exact word count can be a satisfying (if not particularly practical) answer!

Sharing is caring

Finally, building custom word lists gives you the opportunity to share your hard work with others in the community. Although using ready-made lists won’t give them the benefit of all that sense of ownership, it might be the helping hand they need to get started in Finnish / Hindi / Yoruba. Here is my collected vocabulary from Teach Yourself Finnish Chapters 1-3, handily collated in a public Quizlet list.

Forward loading is one way of working actively with your course book rather than just passively consuming it. It gets you started straight away, gives you a real sense of progress, and sets you up to breeze through the course book when you tackle it in earnest. Do a bit of vocab recon before you start wading through the jungle, and give forward loading a try!

Lots of books - nice reading material!

Foreign language reading: books that speak to your heart

Building fluency beyond the basics requires regular, plentiful exposure to your foreign language. And there are few easier ways to get that exposure than through reading for pleasure.

As a lover of books, however, choice can pose a problem. Faced with a treasure of tomes in an overseas bookshop, the bibliophile language lover has a dilemma. Which book should be the one to focus all that effort on for the next few weeks?

It has to be a careful choice. After all, reading in a foreign language takes a degree of commitment and effort we never think twice about in our native tongue. Choose unwisely, and that book might simply end up gathering dust after just a few pages of hard slog and frustration.

Pick a winner, though, and you might end up learning much more than new words and structures: you might get a real glimpse into the heart and soul of your target language country.

It’s a serious business, this reading lark.

Reading expeditions

Serious, but also fun, of course. With the purpose of rooting out these special books, I like to make every trip abroad a reading expedition. And naturally, top of the list of places to visit on these holidays are bookshops. Bookshops fire me up more than all the monuments, museums and other must-sees in the world can. Most people bring back souvenirs: I bring back a book.

Through the book-hunting years, I have gradually learnt what to watch out for. The top danger is over-excitement: pop out for one book, and come back with five. It is too tempting.

But more is not always better. A surfeit of choice can overwhelm you, and through simply not knowing where to start when you get those books home, you might only read one or two of them while the others sit on a shelf. And clutter is the last thing we need for tidy minds.

That’s why I have a rule, now: only one book per trip!

Books that speak to the heart

Limiting your book-buying to one tightens the criteria for choice. The duty of that single book takes on great significance: it must speak to your heart. Soon after your purchase, you will be on the trip home, just you and your chosen book, all the others another holiday away (or, at least, requiring expensive overseas postage).

Put simply, choose what you want to read – not what you think you should read.

In my first years of studying German, for instance, I had an idea that I should read great, classic novels. I plumped for a couple of Thomas Mann editions, imagining how enriched I would be after devouring these acclaimed works.

You probably see where this is going. Predictably, they were extremely tough work. Instead of feeling clever, the whole process was incredibly frustrating. I even wondered whether I was actually just no good at this languages game after all.

The problem? That kind of material would never be my usual choice when reading for pleasure in my own language, let alone German. It just didn’t speak to my heart.

Letting go of cultural baggage

It can be hard to admit that perceived ‘intellectual’ material isn’t our cup of tea. We are bombarded with all sorts of cultural expectations about what is of worth in learning. If you value education, you can fall into these prestige traps, as I did. I thought that as a ‘serious’ learner, I was supposed to be tackling this kind of stuff.

But then, one day, I discovered Harry Potter – through the medium of German!

I bought the third book of the series, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, as a teacher on a trip to Germany with a group of GCSE kids. They had read the books in English, of course. This was 2003 – what teenager hadn’t at that point?

One of the lads spotted the cover of the German edition in a shop, and started raving about it. To see what all the fuss was about, I took a chance on a copy.

A few pages in, and I was hooked.

Now if only I had skipped the Thomas Mann novels and hopped straight to J.K.Rowling. Nothing against Thomas Mann, of course – his novels are rightfully German classics. But the fantastical thrills of the Potter world just spoke to me and my interests more. I love a good fantasy tale – no shame in that at all. Suddenly, reading was a joy again.

Ploughing through all seven volumes really put the stamp on my German fluency. By the end, I was thinking – and dreaming – in German. To this day, I thank J.K.Rowling (and her translators) for that.

Translation versus authenticity?

Now, the purists might grumble. Harry Potter isn’t exactly authentic target language material. Though translators are skilled native speakers, Hogwarts is not the path to cultural familiarity with the German-speaking world.

But what Harry Potter did give me was a springboard. I clearly loved reading that genre in German – so why not seek out the same kind of material from bona fide native German writers? Writers like Wolfgang Hohlbein, Cornelia Funke and Bernhard Hennen, whose books sit comfortably next  to Rowling’s as works of great imagination.

Familiar works in translation, especially children’s books, may be a great way in to reading for pleasure in the target language. But they can also be jump points for exploration of home-grown examples of your favourite genre, too.

Diversifying

Of course, sometimes you just want to take a chance on a book, to stray from the beaten path. One of my stand-out reads of recent months was Firas Alshater’s Versteh einer die Deutschen, a quirky look at Germany through Syrian eyes. It is told with such good humour and warmth that I couldn’t put it down.

This was the one, single book purchase I allowed myself on a trip to Hamburg in November. Not quite Harry Potter, you could say. But I picked it out on a whim, just because the character on the cover intrigued me and I liked the sound of the blurb. It paid off – I can now add autobiography, humour and society to the list of German book sections to browse on my next trip.

Read whatever you fancy, and not what you think you should. Let a book speak to your heart before you commit to it. And never question your honest, heartfelt book choices. Believe me, you will fly through your foreign language books if you follow these principles. Happy reading!

Christmas is coming! Make it a language learning one.

Last Minute Gifts for Language Learners

Yes, Christmas is just around the corner! And, if you’re anything like me, you enjoy a healthy (and very human) mix of perfect prep and last-minute lunacy. However well I plan, there are always a couple of things that sneak onto my to-do list in the last couple of days.

Never fear: if you still have language learning friends and family to treat, these are our top gift picks for linguistic stocking fillers.

Teach Yourself Tutor Series

There’s nothing more exciting to a linguist than a brand, spanking new language learning book. This year, Teach Yourself have really come up trumps with their ever-growing Tutor series of graded grammar lessons and drills.

The fact that these tomes are aimed at “Advanced Beginner” and above makes them particularly appealing to polyglot hobbyists, who often approach grammar with a ton of existing knowledge that can make basic primers boring. Add to that the fact that they’re available in some  lesser-studied languages with fewer available resources, and the series is a real winner. Props to Teach Yourself!

I’ve already invested in a couple, and am impressed at the clarity of explanation and usefulness of the exercises. I’d be smiling if I woke up to any more of these on Christmas Day, let me tell you.

My only request for the Teach Yourself Santa: please, an Icelandic version next year?

 

Virtual Chinese assistant

This tech project has been catching fire recently on funding site IndieGogo. It’s a virtual, conversational assistant designed specifically with the goal of learning Chinese in mind. Hěn hǎo!

It’s possible to pre-order Lily as a backer right now, which is a pretty exciting way to get in on ground level as an early adopter and supporter.

It is just available in Chinese for now, sadly (well, sadly for those of use who haven’t tackled Chinese – yet!). However, there is a hint that further languages will be added in future. Definitely worth bookmarking that page!

Otherwise, alternative virtual assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home have a slowly growing selection of language learning utilities, too. Amazon even introduced software for you to teach Alexa new languages in 2018, underlining a commitment to making the device more polyglot-friendly.

iTalki credits

Books and gadgets are ace, of course. But good old, human, face-to-face contact will add some real-world shine to someone’s Christmas language baubles.

There are few platforms as effective and reasonably priced as iTalki for online lessons. Whether your friends and family are already familiar with it or totally new, you can boost their learning with the gift of iTalki lessons credits.

I burn through mine at a rate of knots, so like-minded linguists will really appreciate some gifted learning time!

App Store credit

Similarly, we language learners can end up spending money like water when it comes to subscriptions for learning platforms. Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise… Premium tier access all adds up.

And it’s not just language-specific services, either. General productivity utilities like Evernote are fantastic learning tools with monthly or annual price tags. Netflix and Amazon Prime also have burgeoning collections of foreign-language viewing that linguists can devour.

As most such platforms are app-based, users can usually pay with app store credit directly on a mobile device. That makes gifting credit for app stores like iTunes or Google Play a great way to support your linguistic loved ones in their online language quest.

You can even acquire app store gift card codes for free through survey sites like Swagbucks. Surveys for pressies? Sign me up!

The gift of time

I’ve said it many times before, but the greatest gifts don’t have to cost anything. Solo learning can be a lonely business, and a bit of people power goes a long way. Why not commit to partnering a friend in their learning?

It’s not just about being a study buddy at the same language level, either. Studies repeatedly support the notion that we learn by teaching. In light of this, why not volunteer your time to your nearest and dearest as a peer student? That’s a gift to them and to you. Win-win.

However you celebrate this year, a wonderful Christmas to one and all. Good tidings of language learning joy – have a great one!

Books on a bookshelf

Bilingual books: tips and tricks for free online reading material 📚

Thanks to a recommendation from another polyglot friend, I’ve been exploring bidirectional translation as a new language learning method lately. It involves working with parallel texts in your target and native languages to strengthen vocabulary and grammar. The only snag: it can be difficult to source books with dual language versions of interesting texts.

Now, Penguin offers a good range of bilingual story books available in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, but an eager linguist will quickly eat through those and be left wanting.

Blockbuster books – in miniature

However, it is possible to get high quality translations of popular texts in many different languages, completely free. The trick is to use Amazon’s ‘free sample’ feature for Kindle books. This allows you to have the first few pages – sometimes a whole chapter or two – sent to your registered device. Simply browse the Kindle bookshop for foreign language titles of interest, then click ‘Send a Free Sample’ on the product page.

To help root out some titles, you can filter Kindle books by language. You can then filter out the fiction books (here are the French ones, for example), or look for non-fiction books that fit your own interests.

What use is a few pages of a story? Isn’t it frustrating to come to a sudden stop after one or two chapters? Well, it doesn’t have to be. If you choose translations of books you are already familiar with – Harry Potter books are a popular choice – then you already know the stories, and are just enjoying parts of them again in your target language. And, of course, if you really like them, you can purchase the full versions from Kindle later.

Pott(er)y for books

I’m like a broken record on the benefits of translated children’s books – particularly the Harry Potter series – for language learners. But they’re great language learning helpers for so many reasons:

  • the stories are familiar, so you can use gist make educated guesses about new vocabulary
  • the language is not particularly complex, as the intended audience was originally youngsters (particularly the early volumes)
  • the stories are broken up into fairly short chapters – an ideal length for the focus of a lesson or learning session

As a starting point, here are links to the first Harry Potter books on Amazon Kindle, in a range of languages. As an extra bonus, most of these titles can be borrowed in full at no cost if you are a Kindle Unlimited member!

And, of course, you can download the matching excerpt from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in English, so you have a perfect bidirectional pair.

Kindle samples are a goldmine for linguists to root around in. That goes particularly for those seeking texts for bidirectional translation, but more generally for anybody looking for quality, interesting reading material. Have you come across any gems? Share them in the comments!

The French flag flying in front of a town hall

Grammar on a budget: CGP French handbook [review]

I’m a big fan of school revision materials as cheaper alternatives to expensive language textbooks. CGP’s foreign language GCSE revision guides are a case in point. The publishers may be targeting teenage students, but the material is just as effective for older, recreational learners.

These language revision guides are largely topic-based, vocabulary-driven textbooks. But French learners can now learn the nuts and bolts of the language on a shoestring; CGP’s KS3 & GCSE French Grammar handbook presents the fundamentals of the language in its trademark concise, colourful way.

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook – (almost) pocket-sized

Grammar, bite by bite

In fewer than 100 pages, the book presents French grammar in palatable, bite-sized chunks. Each major point takes up just a page or two, with simple explanations and clear examples. And the book is packed with colour-coded tables of word forms and conjugations, making it ideal for visual learners.

You can instantly see the attraction of the layout for engaging students on Key Stage 3 / GCSE courses. But it serves as an incredibly accessible grammar guide / refresher for adults, too. Who doesn’t love a bit of colour to aid learning?

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook

The trademark full-colour CGP layout

Clearly, a guide like this won’t be as comprehensive as a benchmark reference work like Routledge’s French Grammar and Usage. CGP will take you a fair way, though; the range of tenses is covered in the short guide, and even the present subjunctive gets a mention. Unless you’re taking French to advanced / university level, chances are that this little book will cover your basic to intermediate needs. At A5 size, it might even fit in your (admittedly large-ish) pocket.

Talking about language

The guide also offers a lot of support if you’re not comfortable with the jargon used to talk about language (metalanguage). More ‘grown-up’ texts can automatically assume the reader grasps grammatical terms about parts of speech, for example. In the CGP grammar guide, however, they all receive clear, plain English explanations. Thanks to the ‘no fluff’, concise style, the material manages to avoid being patronising, too.

French grammar for under a fiver

CGP’s KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook comes in at under a fiver on Amazon.co.uk right now. This compares very favourably with more ‘mature’ basic reference guides, like Teach Yourself’s French Grammar You Really Need To Know.

There is also a companion workbook available at the same price, with practice tests and quizzes. This is in a slightly less pocket-sized A4 format, dwarfing the actual grammar guide. But it is worth paying the little extra for; it offers lots of reinforcement, with a full answer key provided at the back of the booklet.

It’s perhaps not a completely like-for-like comparison, as the Teach Yourself book has many plus points of its own; it has a highly communicative approach, and at twice the length of the CGP guide, it can afford more page space for extra examples and exercises (which are in a separate book in CGP’s case). However, if you’re on a tight budget, CGP has all the necessary points covered.

It’s a great addition to the CGP range, and a release that means learner texts needn’t cost the earth. French is the only language offered right now, although it would be very welcome – and not inconceivable – to see the same title for German and Spanish if this release does well.

Study material for a course

Course books for linguists: save cash with revision guides

When you commit to learning a foreign language, it’s not unusual for a first step to be seeking out good course material. There are plenty of very well established courses, the best including audio material. The staple Teach Yourself series, for example, was always my favourite place to start when starting out on a new language project.

Unfortunately, it can be an expensive business. Course books, audio CDs, dictionaries, grammar reference guides – it all adds up. Fortunately, there’s a cheaper alternative if you’re after simple beginner materials. And they come with some unique advantages over traditional courses, too!

The wallet-saving secret:
Revision guides intended for first-level language exams at high schools.

It was through writing reviews for several revision guides in recent years that I realised how useful the could be beyond their target audience. For a start, they’re comprehensive; the best guides from publishers like CGP include:

  • Thematically organised vocabulary lists and phrases
  • Grammar reference broken into bite-sized chunks
  • Audio material for listening practice
  • Word glossaries at the back, which double up as handy simple dictionaries

Moreover, they’re cheap. Aimed at schoolkids, they’re meant to be an affordable route to getting the best grades. CGP’s GCSE French (Edexcel) revision guide is just £12.99. For comparison, the full Colloquial French course is £19.99 for the book, and £10 for the CD on Amazon.

Horses for courses

OK, it’s not a completely fair comparison, like for like. A revision guide, by definition, is concise and snappy. It’s meant to remind, not to teach. Conversely, a full course will give you lengthier explanations and more extensive examples.

But sometimes, less can be more. If you want an at-a-glance list of useful words or grammar points, then maybe you don’t want all the extra fluff. Revision guides give you all the content, with very little padding and hand-holding.

What’s more, the CGP guides come with useful extras like online library versions. You might prefer not to lug the physical book everywhere. No problem: just access it via an internet-connected device. You’ll find it much harder, generally, to get the electronic version of a full-blown course as a free addition to the hard copy.

Weighing it up

Here are some key advantages and disadvantages to bear in mind when choosing cheap and cheerful course materials over more ‘grown-up’ stuff:

Revision guides Full courses
Cheaper
Concise but comprehensive
Can include audio material
At-a-glance learning material, no ‘fluff’
Many include online versions at no extra cost these days
Great quick reference
Often fun, colourful publications rather than boring old black-and-white
More extensive examples and explanations
Audio material usually more comprehensive and varied
May include more ‘grown-up’ topics and more relevant examples for mature learners

Going off-course

One final point for consideration is language availability. As schools are the target market, you’ll only find guides for languages commonly taught in schools. As an example, the CGP GCSE guides are available only in French, German and Spanish. Not much luck if you’re after cheap materials in Basque, Finnish or Norwegian.

If you can find a good fit for your language, though, consider revision guides.
Made for kids, great for all beginner linguaphiles!