The number one on a post. Image by Ulrik De Wachter, freeimages.com

Basics Fatigue : Conquer Chapter One Boredom and Fill Those Gaps

Do you ever get ‘basics fatigue’? No, not ‘basic fatigues’ (although you can do your language learning in military clothing if you so wish). Basics fatigue is when you know you should go back to basics to fill in foundational gaps in your language knowledge. The problem is, you have no motivation to do so as you feel you should be beyond that level already and the prospect is, well, just dull.

I’ve been experiencing this with Polish a lot lately. The culprit is largely unsystematic and haphazard learning in the beginning – an advert for planning your learning if ever there was one. In any case, I’ve suspected for ages that I’d benefit from getting reacquainted with the first few chapters of Colloquial Polish. But the fact that I probably know 75% of the material in those early chapters already is really off-putting.

Unless I get over it, though, that stubborn, motivation-resistant 25% will keep tripping me up again and again.

So how to conquer basics fatigue?

Seek Novelty

The most obvious way to increase interest is to look for novelty. That is to say, seek out new courses rather than your old books. For instance, in some form or other, Teach Yourself Polish and Colloquial Polish have been lying on my shelves for years. For a change, I gave the home-grown Krok po kroku a look. It worked a treat; it’s a big, glossy, bold and colourful title that really pimped up my basics game.

In fact, there’s the obvious added benefit to sourcing these kinds of resources from a pure target language approach. Reading through materials completely in Polish, including all instructions and explanations, added enough of an extra challenge to keep my focus for longer than books teaching through English.

Widen the Net

Similarly, language guides that teach the basics via the medium of another language – neither your native or target one – can mix things up a bit.

In my case, I was lucky enough to have one close to hand already. The Polish edition of Langenscheidts Praktisches Lehrbuch had languished, forgotten on my shelf, shamefully untouched for a few years. Then, I rediscovered it. Seeing basic Polish through the lens of my German gave me a whole new perspective on its structure. It joined up the dots between my languages, and gave me a stronger linkage between two of my foreign languages without the need for my native language as support. And what a great, solid course it is too, by the way.

Originally, I picked it up on a trip to Germany in the early noughties, transporting it proudly home as part of my language learning bookshop swag (including, if I remember rightly, a German-Estonian dictionary for reasons that were probably clear at the time). I love this kind of thing, of course – learning materials in a language other than your native one. 

Langenscheidt's Polish course - great for the basics if you already have German.

Langenscheidt’s Polish course – great for the basics if you already have German.

Langenscheidt's Polish course - sample page

My old Langenscheidt handbook seems to have been long since replaced by its successor, Polnisch mit System, if you want to give something similar a go. Failing that, Polnisch ohne Mühe is a good option for Polish learners with decent German.

Incidentally, I also recently came across Polisch-Deutsch für die Pflege zu Hause. The book is intended for Polish heath care workers in German-speaking countries, but has some great bilingual dialogues and vocabulary lists that cover the basics in a fresh and interesting new context (at least for me!).

A Practical, Active Approach

If you regularly take one-to-one language learning lessons on platforms like iTalki, there is a very practical way you can retread the basics. Namely, a lot of the social glue of everyday conversation finds itself in those first few chapters. Greetings, niceties, friendly goodbyes – the basics of language learning – they’re all in there. And when it’s those things that are missing, conversation can grind to an unnatural halt. It can take some very focused intervention to put that right.

Instead, what about attacking those chapters methodically, creating a speaking scaffold list of phrases from them? This can help structure iTalki lessons, for example, with a better defined beginning, middle and end. Using book sections to create your own resources beats a purely passive review of them.

Teach the Basics

If all else fails, and those basics really aren’t inspiring you, then you could always try teaching them to someone else. It’s often said that to teach something is to really get to know it. Are there any other budding polyglots around you? Use those foundational chapters to put together a mini lesson for them.

Willing participants can come from the most unlikely sources. My mum recently approached me, in fact; as an NHS vaccine jabber, she was meeting more and more Polish people daily, and wanted to learn a few basic phrases. Out came the books. Suddenly, all those Chapter Ones were a lot more fun.

How do you overcome basics fatigue? Do you have any tricks for reinvigorating foundation material for revision? Let us know in the comments!

Kylie Minogue performing in Hamburg, making a little German go a long way!

Language Economy, Kylie Style : Making a little go a long way

It’s not all about cramming as much as possible with language learning. Sometimes a little can go a long way. And on a language expedition and pop concert jaunt to Hamburg this week, I was reminded of just that.

To set the scene, here’s the story. For years, we’ve been following our friend James following Kylie around all of Europe. She has grown as dear to us as to him over the years, and a regular fixture on our calendars. Through partying along with our friend on his Kylie fixes, we’ve seen a host of wonderful towns and cities we might otherwise never have visited. And so it was that we were lucky enough to catch her on Saturday night performing her Golden Tour at the Mehr! Theater am Grossmarkt.

https://twitter.com/richwestsoley/status/1066457232961929216

Kylie is no stranger to languages, and has more than just a basic knowledge of French. But on Saturday night, she showed us all how to take just a little, and make it count!

You see, Kylie really made an effort to engage with the local crowd.  She peppered her performance with snippets of German, from a simple danke schön (thank you) to wie geht’s (how are you). It may have been just a little gesture, but each time she did it, the crowd lit up.

It’s a valuable lesson in using foreign languages: making even a small effort can pay dividends.

Spread the love

Of course, it is not confined to the big stage, either. That light-them-up magic is accessible to anyone, anywhere, armed with a few words. And being on holiday with friends is the perfect opportunity to encourage them to share the fun.

That said, it can be a big ask. Not everybody is comfortable putting themselves out there, and taking the risk to communicate in a new way. We linguists sometimes forget that, being so used to facing down our social fears. There’s the fear of ridicule, perhaps a hangover from unsupportive teachers at school.

There’s all that I’m no good at languages baggage.

But then, when friends finally dare, they experience that sorcery for themselves. When they get a big smile from the staff at the restaurant or bakery, it’s infectious. You see how proud they feel that they got it right, that it was understood, that it made the other person feel happy. They get a hint of that spark that we feel as language aficionados.

And that is a beautiful thing to see.

As language lovers, perhaps it is one of our duties to teach others how that feels.

A little can mean a lot

There are ways to make this magic even more powerful by choosing your words and phrases carefully. Not all phrases are created equal: some have a lot more to give than others – socially speaking.

Words for social niceties, for example – greeting, expressing gratitude, permission and so on – can be densely packed with multiple nuances of meaning. Often, what they mean depends not only on the words, but the context. This makes them versatile, adaptable and perfect for the ‘little goes a long way’ approach.

In German, for example, take the phrase bitte schön. As well as the stock response to thanks (as in “you’re welcome”), it has a catalogue of other translations, depending on the situation. You can use it when handing somebody something (“there you go”). You say it when you’re inviting somebody to go through a door before you do. It can be a polite way to say “please”. Just look at its Linguee page to see just how multifaceted it is.

Bitte schön is probably the most multipurpose phrase in the whole German language.

If you can tap into these rich seams of hyper-useful vocabulary when you start a language, or when you are travelling, you can truly spin a little out into a lot. Not only that, but they are so commonplace and repeated, that you will be acting and sounding like a native by using them all the time, just as native speakers do.

Even as a full-blown learner of a language, listening out for those extremely frequent, ‘social glue’ phrases is an important skill. It pays to spend a decent chunk of time on that little core of ‘niceties’ vocabulary, as you’ll be using it more than anything else in the target language country. A good place to look before you get there is the first couple of pages of any good phrasebook. You’ll usually find them included in the section on greetings and everyday expressions.

Trickles to torrents

We can use this little language trickery, even as seasoned linguists, to pack as much value into our experiences as possible – be they more extensive language projects, or brief, one-off trips. For instance, I had an opportunity to put it into practise in Slovenia recently, as an attendee at the Polyglot Conference.

As I tend to base my travel around my target language countries, I’m not often in the position of non-speaker tourist. Beyond dobar dan (good day), hvala (thanks) and a handful of other expressions, I didn’t have time to do Slovene justice before my trip. But when I used them in restaurants and shops, the pleasant surprise of locals was palpable. It really doesn’t take much to show that you respect the country and people you are visiting.

Moreover, a small trickle can easily become a torrent. Dipping your toe into the waters of a language can awaken a deep interest later on. I had a really positive experience with Slovene, which piqued my interest more than a little. It sowed the seeds for a bit more exploration later on in my language learning journey.

Of course, that is the linguaphile’s perennial problem: just one more language on the growing list of dozens!

Wherever you go, whatever you do, remember that even the tiniest effort, the smallest vocabulary, can make a world of difference. Be like Kylie: take a little, and make it go as far as you possibly can.

A vast array of colourful baubles, as varied as your own mass sentences can be. (Picture from freeimages.com)

DIY mass sentences technique : self-made repetitions for grammar mastery

I’ve talked about the utility of mass sentences previously, including the vast resources at Tatoeba and Glossika. It can be particularly helpful in drilling language patterns through high exposure to model content and multiple repetitions. However, it’s possible to replicate some of that power under your own steam.

I got the following idea from a fellow member of a Facebook language challenge group I’m a member of. Now, his particular sticking point was German cases, but the idea lends itself to all sorts of material you need to master.

With the help of his teacher, he created a set of ‘model sentences’ as a corpus of focussed learning material. In this case, the sentences chosen covered all of the permutations for cases with articles, for example. Fellow Germanists will recognise the challenge of learning those as a beginner! For instance, this set could include:

  • Der Hund kommt. (The dog is coming – nominative)
  • Ich sehe den Hund. (I see the dog – accusative)
  • Ich gebe dem Hund ein Eis. (I give the dog an ice cream – dative)
  • Das ist der Korb des Hundes. (That is the dog’s basket – genitive)

They can be much more complex than that, of course, including adjectives, prepositions that take certain cases, and so on. The important thing is that they are clear examples of the grammatical points the learner is finding tricky.

Drilling your mass sentences

Once the set is complete, the sentences can be added to your drill tool of choice. That is, unsurprisingly, Anki in most of our cases in the group (it helps having an Anki wizard as the group founder!). You could equally well use a tool like Quizlet or Educandy.

Of course, they can be a ‘mass’ as you like, incorporating from just a few sentences to hundreds. But you should have at least one sentence per grammatical point you’re trying to drill. The only golden rule is to check your sentences with a teacher before you start to drill them. You want an error-free collection of source material!

Conquering the foothills

Since I am currently learning Icelandic, I had plenty of opportunity to put this into practice recently. Four cases, definite and indefinite forms of nouns and both strong and weak adjective declensions had me pretty much stumped for months. The perfect testing ground.

Having started with my sentence stash a couple of weeks ago, I can already see significant progress. Finally, I’m latching on to some of the patterns thanks to repetition. Somehow, those cases are sticking!

Example of DIY mass sentences in Icelandic drilling masculine nouns in the dative case.

Sample of my DIY mass sentences in Icelandic (here, drilling masculine nouns and adjectives in the dative case).

Like all techniques, naturally, it is no magic pill. It can be a gradual and sometimes uneven process, for many reasons. For one thing, our brains are attracted to certain elements first and foremost, partly due to links to other material we’ve happened across. Mine particularly likes the masculine indefinite accusative adjective ending, which reminds me of the German -en ending (German is my first and strongest foreign language). The Icelandic nýr > nýjan (new) maps pretty neatly onto the German neu > neuen.

Whatever the cause, though, that tiny victory is a little foothill of the vast mountain range of Icelandic that I’ve managed to conquer. I now proudly seize upon any chance to use masculine nouns in the accusative when chatting to my tutors! (I know – I will have to move on from that habit at some point…) With a bit more mass sentences graft, I’m hoping that they all start to fall into place soon.

If you’ve not done so before, have a go at making your own sentence corpus to learn from. Incorporate your own most fiendishly difficult grammatical sticking points. You can reap some of the benefits of a mass sentences technique without relying on third-party word banks or subscription sites. Not only that, but you’ll increase your recall power through this hands-on approach to making your own materials.

Edinburgh Castle is a stunning backdrop to the Edinburgh Fringe each August

Edinburgh Fringe for Language Lovers: Shows for Linguists!

Edinburgh Fringe has filled the streets of Scotland’s capital for another colourful August. There are literally thousands of shows available to see. The sheer number of them means that there is bound to be something of interest to everyone. And that includes linguists!

After trawling through the masses on offer, here are some promising-sounding events for students / teachers / fans of languages. Inevitably, it’s the ‘mainstream’ languages of French, German and Spanish that crop up most. But amongst them, there are shows that will appeal to non-speakers, too. And that’s a great excuse to take along a friend or two to spread the language love!

French

The festival can’t get enough of Piaf this year. There are at least five cabaret shows featuring chansons from the renowned songstress! They include:

If you prefer your music folksy, then a set from Les Poules à Coulin looks like a good bet. For dance / physical theatre with a French slant, check out “La Maladie de la Mort d’Après Marguerite Duras”. Check the website, though, as some performances may be in English translation.

Something that really captures the imagination is a bilingual puppetry and storytelling event in French. “The Wonderful World of Lapin” looks like a particularly cute way to introduce the little ones to a bit of français. Most likely, quite a few big ‘uns would also find it magical!

German

German is a little under-represented compared to French (keine Überraschung, sadly!). However, there are a couple of interesting listings that might be worth a punt.

Absurdist theatre your bag? Well, there’s a show for you, performed in German with some English explanations. “Leere Zeit – Idle Time” is on at theSpace on the Mile, a venue that promises a global aspect to its line-up.

For some more classical, musical entertainment, you can enjoy Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos in the church setting of Broughton St Mary’s.

Spanish

As ubiquitous as Piaf is for French, you can’t seem to get away from Flamenco at this year’s Fringe. There are three shows that feature the quintessential Spanish musical / dance style:

The poetry of Lorca takes centre stage at “Frost and Lorca”. The event features artwork by Sir Terry Frost, inspired by the Spanish writer; the presentation is in Spanish and English, so should be suitable for non-hispanist friends!

And for a proper melting pot of storytelling, try “Mimi’s Suitcase”, which blends English, Spanish and Persian to explore themes of identity and displacement.

Even the good old Edinburgh Ghost Tour gets the Spanish treatment this year. “Tour de fantasmas en español” sounds like a fun way to get a stock Edinburgh tourist tick and practise español at the same time!

Russian

Although it’s chiefly English-language comedy, Abi Robert’s show Anglichanka (Englishwoman) is worth a mention. Abi spent considerable time in Russia, and weaves her many tall tales into a wonderfully hilarious hour of laughter. I caught her performing a similar show at my very first Edinburgh Fringe (quite) some years ago, and it’s great to see her back at the festival with more of that hugely funny format!

Culture (without the language)

As well as the above shows, there are hundreds more without a specific language hook, but of cultural interest to linguaphiles. Russia is under the spotlight in several satirical / topical shows, for example.

Less controversially, Russian classical music is on the programme at a number of concerts. Scottish Sinfonia’s line-up sounds like quite a treat. Likewise, you can learn about imagined lives in Russia at theatre events like “The Girl Who Loved Stalin”.

If the aim is to steep yourself in the culture of Russia (or many other target language cultures), then there is a wealth of choice.

Edinburgh Fringe: take a punt

I’ve always found that the best way to enjoy the Fringe is to take a risk. With shows priced so reasonably, you can easily try something you wouldn’t normally see. Thought you hated Piaf? Give her a chance at one of the several shows on offer. Irritated by flamenco? Then give the Scottish twist on it a chance! Personally, the German absurdist theatre tempts the risk-taker in me. It could be worth a shot! And if not, then at least it gets me out of the house for an hour or two…

Have you managed to catch any of the shows above? Are there any others that you’d recommend? Please share in the comments below!

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

Language learning isn’t finite; it’s a lifelong process, and isn’t meant to have an end. As such, languages never count as ‘finished’ or ‘learnt’, but require upkeep and maintenance.

With this in mind, I’ve been planning some exciting mini-trips to German-speaking towns over the past few months. Since graduating from university, I’d taken my German for granted a bit. As my first, and strongest foreign language, it was a bit of an oversight that needed some correction. And, looking in the right places with the right tools, you can unearth some real bargains, and make maintenance breaks a regular thing.

Bremen was my first German weekend of 2017, back in May. It was a great way to ease back into travelling the country – an intimate, friendly and compact city well served by budget flights. I loved every minute of it, and it left me ready for the big boss of German cities: Berlin.

Why Berlin?

As a student, I’d shunned Germany to focus on Austria and Switzerland. The southern German-speaking countries had a special draw to me then, with my fascination of dialect. (Germany is just as rich in dialects, though – something I overlooked as a student!) Berlin was a chance to redress the years of negligence, and really get to know this icon of Germany.

Zip in and around with ease

Berlin is an excellent place for a weekend hop-over or short stay. For a start, many low-cost carriers serve the city. From the UK, I flew in to Tegel for £40 (FlyBe), and am flying out of Schönefeld for £30 (EasyJet). From the US, although obviously more expensive, there are still budget options such as Wow Air.

What’s more, connections from the airports to the city are easy and excellent. The Berlin public transport system (BVG) is comprehensive, fast and good value. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for all zones A, B, and C – including the airports – is currently just €7.70. And that covers local trains, trams and buses. (For most of your full-day activities, a ticket for zones A and B will suffice, making it even cheaper.)

All this makes Berlin the perfect candidate for zipping into and around if you have a limited budget and a short time.

A Berlin for everybody

The huge selling point of Berlin is its diversity of attractions. There are museums, exhibits and sights that will appeal variously to all kinds of interests. And entry fees are, on the whole, very reasonable! Pretty impressive for a major city (and welcome to a Brit suffering from a weak pound!)

Traditional museum buff with a love of antiquity? The Pergamon Museum is probably top of your list. Like showcase architecture and spectacular views? Then head to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).

As for me, I’m a political history nerd. Hungry to learn everything I could about the old East German regime, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period the city has come to terms with through openness; the Stasi Museum (€6.00) and DDR Museum (€9.50) are intriguing, often disturbing, but ultimately extremely enlightening places to spend time. For the linguist, they offer tons of reading material in the form of short summaries of key events with each exhibit. These are in German and English, just in case you need some translation support!

Deciphering East German soldier speak at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Deciphering East German soldier speak in an exhibit at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

History – and language – on every corner

The city is also full of symbolic, charged landmarks of political history, like Checkpoint Charlie and the restored Reichstag. To dig into the significance of each, I used the German language version of Wikipedia to do my planning beforehand. Additionally, public buildings have dedicated websites, like the Reichstag website – essential for booking the highly recommended (and free!) lift to the roof to view the cupola. The Reichstag reception also has piles of books and leaflets in German, all free to take away with you after your visit.

YouTube is a great pre-trip resource, with some excellent historical clips for fact-digging in the target language. I walked through the Brandenburger Tor, from East to West, after refreshing my own memory with German documentary footage of citizens streaming to freedom one November night in 1989. That made for a pretty special way to rei-imagine Berlin’s history.

The day-to-day

Besides the grand cultural experiences, there was plenty of chance to practise my more prosaic German. Berliners come across as open and friendly people, and it was easy to turn everyday conversations into a little bit more.

Being used to waves of tourists with little or no German, shop and restaurant staff seem more than happy to have a little chat if you want to go beyond “one piece of Streusel, please!”. Being curious and asking questions helps – “wie heißt dieser Kuchen?” (“what’s this cake called?”) was a simple but effective conversation starter in the bakery! Just the slightest hint of an accent will turn the simplest of questions into a chat about why you speak German, too.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

In short, I don’t know why I left it so long. Berlin, where have you been all my life? Multiple trips back are a foregone conclusion; the charm of the city and the inexhaustible pot of things to do ensure that. As an affordable mini-trip for Germanists in maintenance mode, I can’t recommend it enough.