Jars of jam. Image by freeimages.com.

Language Jam on Ukrainian Toast

What did you have for breakfast this morning? For me, it was a large dollop of Ukrainian jam on toast. I know, that makes two weeks in a row that I’ve written about food. But this time, it was purely food for the brain and polyglot soul, as it was my very first #LangJam.

My Language Jam language reveal, showing Ukrainian as the randomly selected language.

My Language Jam mission: Ukrainian

My mission: 35-million-speakers-strong Ukrainian. It was quite an inspired random choice on Language Jam’s part. I spent some years studying Russian a while back, and Polish is a major active project for me now. So it seemed very apt to check out this fascinating bridge between hotspots on my language map!

Duolingo = lazy language jam?

First off, I must admit that I maybe failed to match the verve of some friends and colleagues. I remain utterly impressed at the reams and reams of notes some fellow jammers have been making. Just look at this.

Instead, I focused on Duolingo as my main resource, with Wikipedia and Wiktionary filling in the background gaps.

I chose to use Duolingo not just because it was the easy, lazy choice. (It does just happen that it is, though.) I made the choice chiefly because I love the way courses usually introduce you to basic nouns and simple verb phrases at first. Instead of the usual hackneyed ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ and ‘goodbye’ phrases, you get a better picture of how the language works straight off. By the end of it, you end up with a mini dictionary in the mind – a great foundation to continue more serious study if the mood takes you.

Also, if you wind up doing several Duolingo courses, you can start to spot patterns between languages, since the first words taught are largely the same (people and food nouns and such like). It paints a nice picture of how cognates differ between them, and how sounds with the same proto-roots came to be articulated differently and so on.

It builds a kind of etymological overview of languages, and etymology is a big way into languages for me.

Duolingo Ukrainian – how does it measure up?

Whenever I start a new Duolingo course, it’s a fascinating opportunity to compare how the different language options measure up against each other. Ukrainian turned out to have some nice surprises.

Although I know the Cyrillic alphabet very well from Russian studies, I loved the facility to type transliterated, Roman alphabet answers in the absence of a Ukrainian keyboard layout. Cheating? Perhaps a little. But if you are just dipping a toe in, it allows to you start running in the language very quickly.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo. Maybe cheating a little, but so convenient if you are just after a taster!

The recordings could perhaps do with a little TLC in the Ukrainian section. That said, the voices are bright, clear and cheery. What more could you ask for, really?

And the trusty Duolingo approach of basic, stock words and simple sentences was in full force. Within the first couple of lessons you get a sense of basic sentence structure and some initial grammatical concepts like plural formation. In fact, the course reminds me a little of the excellent Polish course which I golded up last year. Thumbs up!

Making connections

As for the Ukrainian language itself, it was as expected. It turns out to be a goldmine of intrigue for someone with experience of both Polish and Russian. Admittedly, I was left with lots of questions. Where, for example, did the /v/ sound creep in from in the words for ‘he’ and ‘she’, він and вона? Polish has the v-less on/ona and Russian он/она (on/ona).

And the surprises kept coming. What happened to make the vowel in Ukrainian хліб, сіль, їсти (chlib, sil’, isty – bread, salt, eat) so different to Polish (chleb, sól, jeść) and Russian (хлеб, соль, есть – chleb, sol’, yest’)? Similarly, ‘city’ is місто – compare Polish miasto, and ‘horse’ is кінь (Polish koń). The word for ‘cat’ is кіт versus Polish kot. That ‘і’ pops up everywhere, and gives the sound of Ukrainian a very distinct, endearing flavour to an ear attuned to the other two.

Add to this special mix a tendency to have softer-sounding, fricatives in initial position where Polish has hard ones, and you start to collate a list of tell-tale signs to listen out for when discerning Ukrainian from its neighbouring Slavic languages. For example, compare Ukrainian це, хто (tse, chto) to Polish to, kto (it, who). Sometimes, building this skill of telling what a language is from its sound shape, even if you don’t speak it, is almost as socially useful as knowing one or two basic phrases.

For me, Language Jam has been a treat just for these comparative adventures. It widens the mental map of how words vary across space. Sometimes, as with Spanish and Portuguese, you can learn certain sound relations and ‘convert’ your knowledge of one into the other. At first study, it seems that Polish and Ukrainian are not quite close enough to do that, thanks to a greater number of vocabulary differences. For ‘animal’, say, Polish uses zwierzę, but Ukrainian тварина (tvaryna), etymologically completely different. But the ‘conversion rules’ at work here are certainly enough to act as a hook when learning one from the other.

Spare parts

When you view a group of related languages together like this, it can almost be like seeing machines that have been put together from a big bucket of parts. Each machine produces the same results in similar ways, but not always using exactly the same pieces.

For example, two Proto-Slavic roots for ‘to see’ have been reconstructed: *vìděti and *obačiti. You could consider these two different spare parts for the notion of ‘seeing’ when we build our Slavic language machines. Polish uses both of them in different aspectual parts, with widzieć (imperfective) and zobaczyć (perfective). Ukrainian uses a cognate of the latter for both perfective and imperfective (бачити / побачити – bachyty / pobachyty). Russian, on the other hand, uses the former for both (видеть / увидеть – vidyet’ / uvidyet’).

Ukrainian, geographically placed as it is, variously uses pieces with a sometimes more ‘Polish’ and sometimes more ‘Russian’ twist. ‘To work’, for example, is працювати (pratsuvati), akin to Polish pracować. On the other hand, Russian goes with работать (rabotat’).

And the ‘spare parts’ idea works within words at the syllable level too, and not just with whole roots. As a case in point, I just love the variations on the word ‘bear’ across the three languages. It seems like each one concocted a different flavour from the same syllable soup. We have Polish niedźwiedź, Ukrainian ведмідь (vedmid’) and Russian медведь (myedvyed’). Possibly the sweetest triplet of cognates ever. They sound like characters from a folk tale!

The stuff I excitedly share here, as if it were some kind of novel discovery, is undoubtedly elementary par for the course for students of Slavic Linguistics 101. But that has been the beauty of using Language Jam as a comparative introduction – exploring and deducing these things in isolation, all by myself. And spotting those relationships and connections is uniquely rewarding as a language lover.

Goal achieved? You’re jam right

These are just a few observations after my very brief exposure to the beautiful and fascinating Ukrainian language over the weekend. The experience has given me a little of that comparative scaffolding for Slavic that has already helped me get a grip on the Germanic languages. And in particular, it has broadened my experience of how phonologies diverge over time and place. For those reasons alone, it has been a truly enriching exercise, and another wave of the flag in support of endless dabbling.

Of course, with just a weekend to jam, the aim was never really to gain any degree of functional fluency. Instead, I was hoping to learn a little about the language, along with a handy couple of words to impress Ukrainians with should I ever bump into some. On that score, it is goal achieved. That said, the little I have learnt would serve as a fantastic springboard if I come to study the language again in the future.

I hope these wide-eyed dabbler notes have given other Ukrainian newbies a taste of the language, aroused the curiosity of speakers and learners of other Slavic languages, and prompted others to check out the fantastic Language Jam.

As far as conserves go, it was pretty sweet.

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

Excel for Polyglots: Comparative audits to keep languages in sync

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

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

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

So how best to address these discrepancies?

Language auditing

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

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

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

Enter Excel, data wizard!

Microsoft Excel and VLOOKUP

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

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

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

Step 1: Port your data into Excel

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

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

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

Exporting data from Anki

Exporting data from Anki

Step 2: Import your vocab into Excel

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

Importing vocabulary into Excel

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

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

Step 3: Format your lists as tables

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

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

Vocabulary data formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel

My Norwegian vocabulary data formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel

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

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

Naming a table in Excel

Naming a table in Excel

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

Step 4: Adding a comparative column

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cross-referencing table in Excel using VLOOKUP

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

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

Step 5: Tying off the loose ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filtering your vocabulary items in Excel.

Filtering your vocabulary items in Excel.

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

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

Where to go from here?

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

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

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

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