The Verb Blitz Adage : Keep It Simple

They say it’s best to keep things simple. And so it is with the Verb Blitz apps.

Verb Blitz, if you missed it, is a solid, old-school reference and drill tool to practise verb conjugations. I created the first over a decade a go as a nerdy hobby project in machine morphology, and it’s now available in 23 languages. Originally intended as a support for my own learning, it’s now helping lots of other learners grapple with endings, stem changes, and all other manner of verb fiendishness.

It was definitely high time for updates. The original apps were developed in XCode with Objective-C and storyboards, which are now very much ‘the old’. Since then, Swift and SwiftUI have become the smart new kids on the block for all things Apple. The longer you leave things, the harder it is to catch up, so a conversion project was as much about up-skilling myself as keeping the apps functional and easily updateable.

A screenshot of Verb Blitz for Scottish Gaelic.

Reining It In

The thing to guard against is that overzealous rush you get when you start a new project. It has a lot in common with the euphoric optimism polyglots get when they start a new language. After a handful of words, we’re promising ourselves that we’ll reach C1 within a year, that’s we’ll commit large swathes of each day to linguistic endeavours. Time and other commitments get in the way, and overpromising can sometimes dent our motivation a little.

For that reason, I found myself having to rein it in a little with the new, fresh Verb Blitz apps. I have a lot of exciting ideas for further developments, but to let them take over would be to jeopardise updating the existing functionality in good time. The fact is that by focusing on getting the foundations right – the existing activities – I take care of the urgent needs first, and have lots of time later to do the more fun stuff.

Isn’t that just like learning a language? It can be so tempting to skip the boring introductory units, and head straight to the meaty chapters of a new course book. I feel that urge with every new language project I start. But it’s definitely worth reining it in. Deal with the urgent needs first – basic communication – and then all the fancy bells and whistles can come later, when you’re up and running.

It’s a nice reminder of the importance of sobriety and moderation in project management. Once again, good learning strategy seems to have a lot of touching points with well-planned tech development. Not least the oft-forgotten advice when setting out: first and foremost, keep it simple!

The Turkish flag. Image from

A Foray into Turkish Verbs

This week, Turkish fell into my lap, quite unexpectedly. Not another one! I hear you cry. Well, not quite.

Here’s the deal. One of my favourite things about developing language resources as a career is the variety. Languages that I probably wouldn’t ever have thought to study land in front of me, and just by working with them, I get the chance to learn about them (if not quite to speak them all).

As it happens, I’ve been working on a Turkish verb drill app lately. Geek fess: automated language learning practice based on morphology models is a nerdy passion of mine. If you build an accurate linguistic model as a digital object, you can manipulate it to create myriad, virtually inexhaustible testing options. That approach fits particularly well with verb conjugations with all their paradigms and permutations.

Second geek fess: if it’s possible to have a most beloved part of speech, the verb is mine. No, I can’t believeI have a favourite part of speech, either.)

In any case, if you’re making these models, you have to understand them first. To start with, I will usually grab a bunch of grammar primers, as well as consult Wiktionary and other online resources like the excellent Turkish Text Book for explained examples to base a program on. The side-effect is that I’ll become unintentionally familiar with language systems I’m not actively learning, which is both a not-particularly-useful gift, as well as a source of linguistic fascination.

And Turkish is quite an interesting one, as far as verbs are concerned.

As Regular As A Turkish Verb

The first thing is the regularity. Pretty much everybody makes this remark; in my searches, I repeatedly came across the seemingly wild claim that there are no irregular verbs in Turkish.

Well, as shocking as it is to someone used to ‘school languages’, this claim appears to be more or less accurate. Verb after verb, tense after tense, there is very little that is completely unexpected. The alternations that you do find are often explained away phonologically, too. For instance, the -t- in the root git- (from gitmek, to go), can become voiced intervocalically in some tenses, like gidiyorum (I am going).

There is one aspect you could compare to Indo-European verb irregularities, which is a handful of verbs with an extended aorist root (vermek, to give, for example, has the aorist root verir- rather than the expected ver-). But it’s nothing compared to the verb table headaches we had in French, German and Spanish.

Just What Are You Inferring?!

The other striking difference from languages I’m more familiar with is the inferential mood. This relates to reporting events that were not necessarily witnessed or experienced, and it’s not something that the Indo-European biggies tend to indicate now; perhaps the closest is the subjunctive of reported speech in German. In his book Dying Words, Nicholas Evans explores  several languages that have these kinds of hearsay features in their verb systems, and they’re all off the beaten, mainstream path. That said, Balkan languages – possibly via contact with Turkish? – have developed ways of expressing it too.

Anyway, bundling that into mood and tense allows Turkish to express some very nuanced situations very succinctly. Take this example from Fluent In Turkish:

almak (to buy)
almiş (I heard that s/he bought)

How nifty is that? If you ever wondered whether it was possible to feel envy over a language having a particular tense, there’s your answer.

Although I’m not learning Turkish, I am learning about it – and loving it. And if all we take away from these brief forays is an appreciation of how other languages do stuff differently, we’re still all the richer for it.

Icelandic Noun Master - an app with an appreciative audience.

Do It For An Audience

It’s nice to be appreciated. And sometimes, an appreciative audience can be just the boost you need to get back into gear.

I received some lovely feedback this week about an app I’d almost completely forgotten about. It all related to a very active Icelandic phase I was going through a couple of years back. At the time, I was enjoying a particularly fierce battle with noun declensions, but suffering from a dearth of resources to help (fellow Icelandic learners will relate).

There’s a good piece of advice in this situation. If there’s no help forthcoming, help yourself.

To get a handle on those noun tables, I put together a quick ‘n’ simple app to drill those declensions. I used Java and Android Studio (it’s my job, after all), but there was no prerequisite level of tech – it’s something that could just as easily take life in a site like Quizlet or Educandy.

The idea was basic: a set of multiple choice activities to drill Icelandic noun endings, separately by gender, or altogether. It just needed a bit of time to put together questions and prompts from the grammar guides I had available to me. And the result? A really effective five-minutes-a-day app for getting those endings into memory.

The added benefit of putting it together as a mobile app was that it was ready-bundled to share on to others. I released it as Icelandic Noun Master on Google Play as a free app, and watched the downloads slowly clock up. It’s still there, quietly helping anyone who needs it.

Learning by Making

DIY resource production – for yourself and for others – is a language learning strategy that can yield surprisingly positive results. For a start, resource creation gets you thinking deeply about your learning material, and how to transform it into a clearer, easily testable format. To make questions from it, you have to step away, look at it from a different angle, turn it inside out, think about it in ways that perhaps weren’t obvious on first glance. It’s like turning a jigsaw puzzle upside-down for a fresh perspective, and suddenly spotting where a piece goes. That see it in a different way benefit, incidentally, is why teaching to learn is likewise such a good strategy.

But there’s another intended side-effect, an almost hypnotically effective one. In the creation of resources, you can drift into an almost automaton-style collating of material, sourcing and listing sample sentences, questions or tabular data. It’s a kind of flow state that encourages foreign language material to bed itself in almost by a process of osmosis. Even if it doesn’t quite become active knowledge in one fell swoop, it lays the ground for it to become so later.

Keep ’em Coming

So, in these ways (and probably many more), an appreciative audience can be a useful tool for a language learner. And of course, there’s also that feeling that what you’re doing has impact and usefulness – and that can work wonders for your motivation. In any case, it’s got me thinking that there’s a bit of life left in the trusty old Icelandic Noun Master yet. I’ll be returning to it now, to spruce it up, and revise my own Icelandic. And maybe I’ll even add an iOS version to the mix, too.

Have to keep that audience happy!

Modal verbs can lend colour to your speech (image from

À la modal : how these little nuancing verbs can fix your fluency

I have a nerdish love of verbs. For me, it’s where it all comes together in language. They are sentence glue. Conjugate them, and you can hang the rest of the sentence from them like on the branches of a tree. But there is a small group of verbs that always make me feel more expressive and fluent in a foreign language. They are the modal verbs.

You have likely already come across them in your studies. In English, they are words like canmustshould and so on. They are often irregular, and very high-frequency in the languages they belong to.

So why are they such a boost to fluency?

À la modal verbs

The magic of modals is that they nuance what you say. They decorate your sentence tree with colourful subtexts. Technically speaking, they layer your speech with modality – the ability to express situations which may not be real.

Concretely, modals are verbs that imply intention, possibility, obligation and probability. These are all complex nuances, but very quick and easy to apply succinctly with modals. And they fix a common frustration of beginners: boring conversation syndrome.

It is a common beginner language learner experience to feel limited by straightforward, indicative tenses. You quickly frustrate yourself in speaking if all you can do is make statements of fact. I am a studentI went to a concertwe have a dog, we travelled to Spain. Hmm – boring!

Modal verbs change that up. They colour the story. Suddenly, I could be a studentI wanted to go to a concertwe should have a dogwe might go to Spain. Beyond bare statements of fact, you are now expressing hopes, wishes, dreams, judgements, assessments and more. From dull zero to language learning hero through the addition of just a few words.

Letting you off lightly

Modal verbs can actually make your language easier to speak, as well. Since they usually connect to the bare infinitive – or most basic form – of another verb, they give you a wee respite from conjugating it.

For example, let’s take the Spanish verb phrase:

ir al colegio (to go to school)

Ir is a notoriously irregular verb. If you are fumbling for its past form when trying to say I went to school, then there is a simpler way: modal verbs and constructions. If you have memorised the simple past of ‘had to’ in Spanish, it becomes easy:

tuve que ir al colegio (I had to go to school)

That tuve que construction just saved you if you had forgotten the form fui (I went). Fair enough, the meaning is subtly different – you are expressing obligation here instead. But it is close enough to express the original indicative sense that you went to school too. A neat trick.

The great thing with this tactic is that just learning a couple of conjugated forms of modal verbs can go a long way. You need only learn a few key forms at first. Perhaps the first person present and past forms (I mustI had toI canI could and so on) are the most immediately useful for conversation. Then, simply clip on whole verb phrases to the end – no conjugation required. An instance fluency boost!

To continue the metaphor of the verb as the trunk of a tree, modal verbs are big, sturdy branches that can comfortably take the weight of even more verbs.

More bang for your buck

Let’s face it – some words are more useful than others.

For a start, modal verbs are common, high-frequency words that you will regularly come across. A good benchmark is where a word appears on a frequency list of words in the target language. Anything in the top hundred suggests that you will be exposed to the word all the time. Spanish puede (can) features in its top sixty, as does its French counterpart peut and German kann.

But something makes them even more useful that just being frequent. They are often semantically overloaded, too, meaning that they have multiple meanings depending on context.

Just take must in English. It can be a bare indicator of obligation, as in we must go. But it can also express the speaker’s assessment of high probability, as in they must be the new students. Many languages mirror this usage, such as the Spanish debe de estar cansado (he must be tired).

Consulting any good reference on your target language should throw up scores of examples. This Wiktionary page on the Spanish deber (must) gives a good overview of that word, for instance. After checking out constructions there, you can then hunt down sample sentences containing them on a service like Tatoeba.

Overloaded words are excellent news for squeezing lots of language out of a little learning. You get even greater mileage than normal out of each modal verb mastered.

Modal Verbs : fast-tracking fluency

Convinced by these little nuancing fluency helpers? The facts speak for themselves. Modal verbs are high frequency words. There are just a few to learn. They have dense, multiple meanings. And they make speaking easier when you are still grappling with general verb conjugation. They are the perfect fodder for a bit of language hacking towards fast fluency.

Could it be magic? It just might. Say yes we can and enjoy pumping up your fluency with modal verbs!

Learn tricks with verbs to get your conversation flying high above the clouds

Verbs made simple: make your conversation fly

English speakers have it easy with verbs. Aside from those pesky irregular ones, you’ve only got -s and -ed to worry about.

That’s why verbs can be the first brick wall anglophones hit when they begin a foreign language. Look at Spanish – every tense has six forms, one for each person (I, you, he/she/it etc.), and all of them are different from the word you’ll find in the dictionary. Look up hablar (to speak) as a total beginner, and it won’t tell you about hablo – hablas – habla – hablamos – habláis – hablan. And that’s just the present tense!

Now, I don’t mean to scare anyone off learning verbs. There’s actually a logical beauty to conjugation systems, especially for dyed-in-the-wool language geeks like me. The patterns might be unfamiliar, but they will come with time and patience.

However, there are a couple of tricks you can use as a total beginner to get your conversation flying, and not struggling to take off in a pea-souper of verb endings.

Cut-price verbs

Tables of verbs will easily overwhelm a beginner. It’s just a massive wall of words if you don’t know the language very well. But ask yourself: how much of that detail do you actually need as a beginner?

Chances are that as a newcomer to a language, your conversations will mainly be talking about yourself (I), or the person you’re speaking to (you). You’ll probably be doing most of that in the present tense (making general statements) or the past (talking about what happened). So why not cut the padding, and just focus on the four combinations of those things? In English, that would look like:

Present Past
I speak spoke
you speak spoke

In many languages, you can ask a question by simply changing the intonation of your voice. So you won’t even have to learn any special question forms. Pick out your simplified verb parts, and add them to your favourite vocab drilling program like Anki like you would with any other word or phrase. Paper flashcards are great for learning these verb parts, too.

But wait…

Ah, you might be thinking. My foreign language has several different past tenses according to what you’re talking about! Spanish, for example, has the preterite for single, completed actions, and the imperfect, for repeated or habitual actions in the past.

Well, just take one of them. If you’re talking about stuff that happened in Spanish, then the preterite (the ‘story-telling’ past) is probably the best. In German, the perfect tense might be best, as it’s used as a ‘conversational past’. Whichever tense you choose, if you use it incorrectly, most native speakers will be forgiving and still understand. And comprehension is the name of the game, right?

So, here’s our ‘essential conjugation’ for the Spanish verb hablar (to speak):

Present Past (Preterite)
yo hablo hablé
hablas hablaste

The same goes for languages with different familiar and polite words for you. Pick just one, for now. Make it the one that makes most sense for you – I used the familiar in the Spanish above. If you’ll be speaking with peers and other students, then probably the familiar one is best. If you’ll be in lots of formal situations, learn the polite one.

To be, or not to be

Of course, you can go one step further, and not learn any endings at all. The trick is to find phrases that you can just slot that dictionary form – the infinitive – into. Then, just look up your word, pop it into your sentence, and voilà! Neatly-formed sentences without any effort.

Taking Spanish and French as an example, here are just a few stock phrases you can use with an infinitive:

Spanish French English
Hay que … Il faut … I/you/we must …
Me gusta … J’aime … I like …
Voy a … Je vais … I’m going to …

Just look up a verb in the dictionary, and wodge it on the end. Simples!

It’s all about making your job as a learner easier. Simplify – you’ll be communicating all the sooner for it!