Alphabet Texts

Textual Time Machine: Turning to the past for motivating target language texts

Gary Barlow and Margaret Thatcher accompanied me on my language learning this week. This surprising turn of events was thanks not to celebrity friendships and psychic messages, but rather a lucky stumble across a treasure trove of motivating target language texts.

In truth, I was getting a bit tired of language learning textbooks. Dialogues about holiday scenarios and sanitised snippets of everyday life in the target language country weren’t sparking my fire at all. As such, I was struggling a bit to motivate myself to read.

Then, I happened upon the Icelandic media archive

Tantalising texts: balancing subject and level

It is not possible to overestimate the benefits of hitting upon just the right texts to motivate your language learning. There are two strands to bear in mind on that search, sometimes complimentary, sometimes conflicting: subject and level.

Subject is important to inspire you to read in the first place. For example, I’m not interested in race car driving at all. So trying to plough through an Icelandic magazine article on Formula One is going to turn me right off. Music or travel, on the other hand, and I’ll be hooked in – especially if the text contains some new information that will be interesting or useful to me personally.

Level is simply the complexity of the language. But level interacts with subject, at least in terms of motivation. If the subject matter fascinates you, even a very difficult text will be one you gladly pore over. And if you are familiar with the subject matter, guessing new vocab from context is a hundred times easier and less frustrating.

Textual Time machine

Enter It is a grand, online collection of digitised newspaper and magazine media by the National and University Library of Iceland. This incredible service makes accessible publications that stretch back decades, fully readable and downloadable in PDF format.

Now, you might well chuckle at my first searches. A whole world of information at my fingertips, and my first selection was anything but highbrow. I grew up during the boyband explosion, so anything that whips up nostalgia around that will pique my interest. So that settles it: what had Iceland to say about Take That in years gone by?

That’s the trick though: don’t shy from your geekiest interests. Be shameless! Dig around and find some material to explore and reminisce over. The whole point is to connect, to personalise, to enmesh your learning into your life – even the cheesy parts. There certainly was no shortage of vintage cheese on offer here, like this cutting on “Gary Goldboy“:

Tímarit (

Gary Barlow, 1996 (

Sometimes the time machine can throw some real zingers of historical nuggets your way, too. I happened across the following (probably apocryphal) story of said popstar moaning about the cost of beer in Berlin in 1996. Celebrity gossip ages quite well, it seems – still served with an eye-roll and a heap of scepticism.

Beer outrage (

Beer outrage, 1996 (

Our history – their eyes

Popsters aside, I am also a bit of a news and current affairs junkie. When I get fed up of the current dirge (which happens a lot lately), I turn to the recent past. Exploring political history, especially what happened in your own lifetime, can be an enlightening exercise.

Trawling the pages of reveals an unusual passion: reading about my own country through the eyes of another. I spent a good few hours typing in the names of figures associated with big political events, then seeing the Icelandic take on them through archived, authentic texts.

Callaghan or Thatcher? They decide today! (

Callaghan or Thatcher? They decide today! 1979 (

The marvellous thing about is the sheer depth of chronology. Facsimiles go back to the turn of the 20th Century. I leapt from Thatcher, to Wilson, to Attlee, reading excitedly each Icelandic take on a turning point in my country’s history. Fascinated is an understatement.

Target language culture?

But just a moment: British bands and British politicians? It’s all a bit Anglocentric, so far. However, you can use these as a springboard for tropes closer to your target language. After reading about Thatcher, for example, I searched for the phrase ‘first woman’ in Icelandic. Which other trail blazers would pop up? Well, I wasn’t disappointed. I learnt all about Iceland’s – and the world’s – first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.

Vigdís voted president! (

Vigdís voted president! 1980 (

Of course, I have my own target language country fascination already: Eurovision. And there is no shortage of material there! I can’t explain how enthralled my inner nerd becomes when reading about the songs that I obsessed over for years as a superfan. Simply magical.

Eurovision Iceland 1992 (

Eurovision hopefuls for Iceland in 1992, feeling ‘well rehearsed’ ( See here for the resulting live performance!

The fact that all this material is downloadable in PDF format is invaluable. I can simply load them onto my iPad (I use GoodReader for PDFs) and study them on the go.

Other languages is a truly golden resource. As an Icelandic learner, I am beyond lucky to have open access to such a library. But where does this leave learners of other languages?

Sadly, while there are paid archives like the German, free materials like are hard to come by. Perhaps Iceland’s size has made the task of collating and gaining rights for so much material a little easier than elsewhere. Still, even on paid-for sites there is some useful information.

The archive of German publication Spiegel is a good example. You can search editions back to 1946, although you must pay for the full issues. However, the cover thumbnails are intriguing in themselves as pieces of social history. They also contain a fair bit of useful target language in the form of headlines and subtitles.

Spanish news outlet ABC also offers its Hemeroteca (newspaper library) for information time travellers. I found this article on Spain’s first Eurovision victory, by Massiel back in 1968, particularly charming!

With a bit of Google search grafting, there should be something to find out there for all learners.

Archive sites are goldmines for language learners searching something a bit different to read. Do you have a favourite or recommended source of texts? Share them in the comments!


Busy social media accounts can lead to fuzzy focus online

Refinding focus: banishing the online noise

Focus can be a hard thing to find these days.

If you’re plugged into social media, you live in a sea of information. Family, friends, celebrities, politicians, news outlets and more, all in a single pot. There’s something to follow for everyone out there, not least language lovers.

The trouble is that your feed becomes a big mash of mixed messages. And when there’s a news swell around a particular story, you can find your online world flooded with cynicism, negativity and sensationalism. It’s too easy to be dragged down by that.

News saturation

I found myself in this position in 2016. In fact, it had been building up for a while, but 2016 signified a kind of saturation point for me. Maybe you’ve experienced this too; all the stuff I cared about was in the mix – language learning tips, updates from fellow linguaphiles, travel blogs on my favourite (and dream) destinations. But it was drowning amongst the retweets, amongst every Trump, Brexit, or other viral story hogging the feeds that day.

There was too much noise.

Now, I’ve always been someone who likes to keep up-to-date with what’s going on. Friends of mine have dealt with this by imposing a full-on news embargo, which works brilliantly for them. But try as I might, I can’t quite wean myself off current affairs.

Focus on the positive

So what I decided to do is streamline. My big problem with common social media use is the one pot for everything approach. The rationale is that a single source for all your information is simply more convenient. The trouble is, I was losing the stuff I loved amidst the cacophony of news filler. What I needed to do was repurpose my social media accounts to be more one-track, dedicated vehicles for the things that mean the most to me.

Making Twitter fitter

Twitter was the my first pruning victim. I’d accumulated hundreds of accounts in my feed over the years. First to go were the politicians and political parties. Then the news outlets. Then the celebs, and the brands. I ended up with a core of tweeters who were speaking in a language I wanted to hear on the things I loved.

If I wanted to stay up-to-date with any of the ousted mouthpieces, I’d shift them to another platform; celebs I can follow on Instagram, brands on Facebook, and current affairs on news websites. I wasn’t shutting out anything – just reorganising it. I was getting some sharper focus back in my online life.

Brave new world

After the cull, I started to notice something amazing. I was used to Twitter as a place of vitriol, controversy, hyperbole and division. Suddenly, my feed was full of enthusiasm, passion and motivation. Now and again, the odd current affairs retweet would sneak in, but Twitter had become my almost-watertight bubble of language learning joy.

We hear a lot about the danger of filter bubbles these days. But while it’s important to expose yourself to range of views and arguments, you deserve a happy place for the things you love, too. Streamline and organise your social media accounts, and win back a little focus from the mad, racing world.