My Teach Yourself Dabbling Shelf

Mastering Beginnings : Dabbling Through the New Year

I set myself a task in 2021: to collect the full set of Teach Yourself language courses from the 1980s and 1990s. That task is nearly complete, with the missing languages now counting in the single figures. I’ve ended up with a really comprehensive language learning library including a bunch of languages I’ve never even thought of studying, from Afrikaans to Zulu.

So what now?

Well, it is the season for New Year’s Resolutions, so I had a crackpot idea. What about working through each of them in 2022, attempting to complete the first chapter in every one?

The Dabbling Library

You crazy fool! I hear you cry, what’s the gain in that? After all, a bunch of introductory chapters won’t result in a very strong working knowledge of any of them. A bit of a lot, but not a lot of much.

That all depends on your goals in language learning, though. Of course, I still have those core projects with the aim of high-level functional or conversation fluency, like Gaelic, Greek and Polish. And I have my maintenance projects to retain fluency in languages like German, Norwegian and Spanish.

But there’s a huge amount to be gained from casual dabbling, and my little TY cache promises to be fertile ground for that.

A Little Goes A Long Way

For one thing, I’ve learnt over the past year-and-a-bit of master study in linguistics that knowing about languages – regardless of your ability to speak them conversationally – is invaluable. Even a brief foray into how wildly disparate tongues work can give you a whole new perspective on how humans do this whole language business. Exploring beyond the Indo-European bubble, for example, helped me to dismantle some sticklers of limits to my linguistic thinking. Arming your mind with a thousand varied examples is great prep for linguistic research.

My single-chapter dabbling spree is a chance to fill in some telling gaps, too. Some of those languages on my TY shelf are close siblings to others I know well. Catalan, Portuguese, Italian… I’m expecting my Spanish to help prise the door open a little bit more than the very first pages. Just learning a few regular sound correspondences and cognate (mis)matches can provide a working knowledge beyond the concrete words and structures you learn from the page itself. That’s not to mention the bird’s eye view you get of particular language families, particularly on how close pairings differ.

And finally, there’s the caveat that building bridges with languages doesn’t require absolute fluency. Just a few words – a hello, a please, a thank you – is enough to make a human connection. Knowing just jó napot (good day) in Hungarian was ice-breaker enough to strike up conversation with restaurant staff in Birmingham. A smattering of 100 or so Hebrew words was ample for having a hybrid French-Hebrew conversation with Israelis in a bar in Paris. In short: don’t discount the value of even a tiny bit of knowledge.

Dabbling Down on Languages

So, wish me fun, enjoying this lot. I would ask for luck, but when language is the pleasure it is to all of us, we don’t need too much of that. Because that joy is the clincher, it’ll remain very low-key in terms of organised study, particularly since I’m ever-wary of goal exhaustion.

But please, feel free to join me on this journey mastering beginnings, if I’ve convinced you. Giving old books a new lease of life is an easy and really affordable way to start your own dabbling shelf!

Northern Rift Valley, Tanzania. Swahili is one of Tanzania's national languages. Picture by Barbara Schneider of

Swahili Safari: First Steps on a Brand New Language Journey

I’ve been saying for a while that it’s high time I diversified my language outlook. And as of on cue, the chance fell into my lap this month. My MSc Linguistics programme includes a 20-credit introductory Swahili module. Asante!

Swahili makes a lot of sense to me as a credit option. For a start, Bantu languages seem to pop up with regular frequency as examples in the phonology literature. They seem interesting to linguists because they are different, and relatively less well-covered than the ‘mainstream’ bunch of tongues studied in schools, colleges and universities. They offer a chance to observe phonological processes at work in a fresh (to us) environment, without the bias of the all-too familiar.

But there’s also the reason why those language are unfamiliar in the first place: the relative invisibility of African languages in Western educational settings. My instincts draw me to Indo-European studies because they are familiar, comfortable, safe. The reason? The choice to study an African language was never part of the traditional offering. At secondary school, it was either French or German; even Spanish was a stretch. And just try finding resources on Swahili, Yoruba or Xhosa at a bookshop in 1993! As a result, I spent my formative language learning years blind to a huge swathe of the world’s languages.

Here was an opportunity to do something about that.

Defamiliarising the Familiar

Admittedly, the cultural barrier has never been entirely watertight. Western bias aside, some elements of Swahili have managed to slip into the international repertoire. In fact, many English speakers will have come across a little of the language already without realising it.

The word safari, for example, found its way into English via Swahili (although there, its meaning is journey, and it was an Arabic loan before that). What’s more, Disney’s The Lion King popularised phrases like hakuna matata (no worries) and even words like simba (lion) through character names. Through popular culture, you may have come across the greeting jambo, too.

But jambo nicely illustrates how imperfect that cultural cross-pollination can be. It turns out that jambo is not found on its own colloquially. Instead, it is just a simplification to teach the tourists. Meaning literally matter or affair, it is usually incorporated into phrases like hujambo (roughly ‘don’t you have anything?‘) and the reply sijambo (‘I don’t have anything‘) in everyday use.

But to my ear, that simplification says a lot; it says that even native speakers assume that visitors won’t want to spend time and effort on the language. It’s an assumption of disinterest, one backed up by reality. This tourist is that half-interested outsider, rooted in the comfortable elsewhere, here for the show but unwilling to engage too closely.

Lesson one: try not to sound like a tourist.

Thinking Differently

Meeting the intricacy of the language head-on is an excellent way to do that. And as you delve deeper, one of the most rewarding aspects of stepping away from the familiar is the discovery of other ways that human beings do language.

In many Indo-European languages, for example, we are used to noun classification by gender: masculine, feminine and (sometimes) neuter. Swahili has classes and corresponding agreement too – just not along gender lines. Instead, there are nine noun groups (eighteen if you count singular-plural separately) that are roughly organised by meaning, and have characteristic prefixes. They come in singular-plural pairs, such as the first one, m-/wa-, which tends to group together ‘people’ nouns. For instance, we have:

mtu person watu people
mtoto child watoto children
mkenya Kenyan person wakenya Kenyan people

Then there is the m-/mi- class, which groups inanimate objects (but also plants, groups of people and animals, as well as body parts):

mti tree miti trees
mguu leg/foot miguu legs/feet

With their rough division based on objective traits, they remind me a little of Chinese quantifying words, which sort objects along similar lines (long things, things that come in pairs, collectible things and so on).

But more than anything, the prefix system turns what we might think from a purely Indo-European bubble on its head: nouns being marked for meaning by changing at the beginning, rather than the end.

Learn Your Verb… Beginnings?

It turns out that Swahili likes this front-loading pattern. We see it in verbs, too, which speakers conjugate through tightly ordered prefixes on word-final stems. Take the verb ‘see‘ in English, for example, which has the stem -ona in Swahili. Here are a few finite forms from that stem:

niliona ni li ona
I saw I past tense marker verb stem
ninaona ni na ona
I see I present tense marker verb stem
nitaona ni ta ona
I will see I future tense marker verb stem

There is even a further slot (just after the tense marker) that can agree with the verb’s object. Being so used to endings, learning to think the other way round is quite refreshing.

And geekily, linguistically thrilling!

Swahili Safari

So there it is: the beginning of my Swahili safari. Just a week of the language has begun to fill in the gaps in a knowledge I only now realise was so incomplete, so localised. Already, it is lending a bit of colour to my first steps in formal phonology and morphology. And maybe, these first observations of an excited (and easily excitable) budding linguist are enough to tempt you to step into the unfamiliar, too.

Or even tempt others – in these days of flipped classrooms and independent learning, perhaps we can focus on teaching kids generalised language learning skills, then give them that truly open choice we missed out on ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be Swahili, of course. It is enough to have the choice of all available paths on our journey.

Just enjoy the safari!

Jars of jam. Image by

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.

Dabbling with languages is like trying all the sweeties! Image from

Dabbling to joy : allowing yourself guilt-free language exploration

For many, August is the month of holidays. This year, I made it my month of dabbling!

Planning, routine and system are crucial in language learning. But there should always be time for a bit of ranging and roving. Dabbling – or the casual exploration of new languages – is when passionate polyglots really let their hair down. And there are so many opportunities for it these days, with multiple online platforms offering quick, easy – and free – taster courses.

Two-timing – or a hall pass?

For many of us, it can be a real source of guilt to stray from our core language projects. After all, when we look elsewhere, doesn’t it almost feel like we are cheating on those languages closest to our hearts and minds? That our attention should be completely and unwaveringly directed towards our greatest goals? However, giving yourself free rein to explore can be a liberating experience.

Learning to embrace a linguistically curious nature is a healthy step towards becoming a well-rounded polyglot. The joy – and utility – of dabbling is just too good to deny it to yourself. Seizing upon that spirit, I decided to make August my Dabble Month. I used the time to play with everything from Italian to Turkish to Swahili, chiefly thanks to Duolingo. The extra leaderboard points were very helpful, of course! But the utility of dabbling goes far beyond that.

So what can dabbling do for us? And why should we purposefully make time for it between all our ‘serious’ learning projects?

Dabbling out the box

Polyglots, like so many other animals, are creatures of habit. Now, there are benefits to sticking with familiar pastures. It can be very handy to study languages from closely related families, for example. For a start, picking new ones up is so much easier if the rules and structures are already familiar to you.

But sometimes, material can be so familiar that the element of challenge evaporates. We no longer have to think, or try, with the same tenacity. And that defeats one huge benefit of language learning in terms of head health: the mental gym, working out the plasticity of our brains with new puzzles. When dabbling, you suddenly challenge yourself to make sense of new, unfamiliar patterns. Instead of falling back on your automatic, ingrained thinking, you must conceive brand new categories.

Just take a bite of Turkish, for example. To those focused tightly on Indo-European languages, it is a revelation. Its definite accusative and vowel harmony system require IE-soaked newbies to think on their feet. And just a brief dip in the water reveals that there is much more to language life than S-V-O! It is a big, wide and varied world of words out there.

Sticking to the same language family presents just one picture of how language can be, how human beings perform things with languages. Straying from the same path opens up the box.

Making connections

That said, we can also turn this argument on its head. Through dabbling with closely related languages, you can add extra strings to your polyglot bow very quickly and easily.

But there is an additional upside to this. Getting to know your core language’s closest cousins ultimately means you understand it more intimately, too. Seeing how two related languages treat the same root teaches a lot about the development of vocabulary and sound systems, for instance. And that can only cement your proficiency in the key language.

Naturally, you might worry about getting things mixed up. Personally, I put off exploring Swedish for years for fear of ‘contaminating’ my Norwegian. In fact, our brains are much more resilient to this than we think, and research into bilinguals provides some evidence for this. As personal proof, I recently spent a couple of weeks marvelling over the differences between Norwegian and Swedish (Coffee and wine are neuter?! Wolf is varg and not ulv?!) and I feel more informed, not more confused.

The grass is sometimes greener

Polyglots are always on the lookout for their next big language love. And dabbling is a great way to test the water for new projects on the polyglot trail.

Remind yourself that there is no harm in doing a few tentative lessons in a new language to see if you like it. Learn a couple of basic words and phrases, and listen out for whether those sounds speak to your heart. Your never know – those first steps just might turn into a lifelong passion.

Of course, shopaholic bibliophiles (of which there are many of us) may also have a ready-made dabbling shelf  thanks to past purchases, as yet not fully explored. I am certainly guilty of this. Simply think of them as passion flowers yet to blossom!

The shelf of forgotten language projects - the perfect place for dabbling!

The shelf of long forgotten language learning purchases, or ‘passion flowers yet to blossom’ – the perfect place for a bit of dabbling!

Keeping it fun

This last point speaks for itself. We are polyglots; languages are just excellent, brain-bristling fun.

As with all things we love, it is healthy to let yourself off the leash sometimes. All work and no play can dull the shine of even the deepest passions. Allow yourself to enjoy a leisurely ramble without the pressure and constraints of performing or achieving.

It doesn’t matter if you have zero plans at all for using the fruits of your dabbling. It doesn’t even matter if you feel you won’t remember much of it at all in the long term (although give yourself the benefit of the doubt – even when you feel you have learnt little, something will stick!). If you have fun in the process, that alone is a healthy outcome.

Think of it as naughty but nice food. Cakes, chocolate, biscuits… All that stuff we sensibly keep a lid on most of the time. But now and again, it is so satisfying to gorge on goodies at a party or a meal out. If you love languages like you love food, then allow yourself a binge from time to time!

Dabbling to a happier life

In short, dabbling can truly jolly up your language learning routine. And naturally, those benefits are not confined to languages alone. Be a life explorer, and dabble across all your fields of interest. Programmers, try a new programming language or framework. Cinema buffs, plump for a totally different genre for your next few choices. Sporty? Try an completely alternative approach or discipline.

Dabbling is invaluable prep for life’s unpredictable nature. Dabble, and keep that mind ready for anything the world can cook up.