Nigheanan Mòra by Catrìona Lexy Chaimbeul (2014). Reading target language texts is an excellent way to improve foreign language skills.

Working with Target Language Texts

Eager to push my Gaelic out of the language course box and into the wild, I’ve been working with a number of short texts for intermediate learners lately. Luckily, quite a few readers have appeared in the recent years, including a bunch of fun titles that go beyond the usual ‘Celtic myths retold’ route (not taking anything away from the great series of beginners’ books from Jason Bond).

A recent favourite of mine, Nigheanan Mòra (Big Girls, 2014), was penned by one of the creatives behind recent BBC Alba drama hit An Clò Mòr, Catrìona Lexy Chaimbeul. On the surface, it’s in firm rom com territory, at turns silly, funny and melodramatic. But it’s grown-up enough to feel like you’re reading a real book, and not just an oversimplified, fleshless yarn that trades plot for easy reading. It’s also chock full of colloquial, conversational Gaelic dialogue, which makes for a great living language learning model.

That said, getting the most from a reader takes a bit more organisation than simply starting at page one and ploughing through. Better to have a strategy to maximise both your enjoyment and your learning.

Working With Texts : One Approach

Of course, there’s no single ‘correct’ way to work through target language texts. Through trial and error, I’ve found a way that works for me, which I’ll outline here. It works best with short-ish texts, since it involves two passes in quick-ish succession, but you could also use it with short sections of longer texts.

That’s because manageable chunk size is the key to this method. Often, you won’t need to worry about that with texts specifically for learners. Many books that support learners, like Nigheanan Mòra, already have nice short chapters of 5-10 pages. I find that’s the ideal length to read and digest texts without tiring (because, let’s face it, reading in a foreign language is more taxing). If chapters are much longer, just flick ahead a little way to see if there’s a natural stop somewhere, and make that your goal.

Pass One : the Chill read

After that, it’s time to start reading. The first pass is the no-chill literary gambol. Read for gist and plot, and don’t fret a jot about the odd unknown word. The focus here is on simply understanding and enjoying the story, first and foremost. I like to go full non-study mode at this stage. I’ll pick a cosy reading spot, grab a drink and just try to immerse myself in the story. No dictionaries, no pencils, no interruptions.

After that first reading – maybe 20 minutes or so – I’ll stop, take a breath, and reflect on the twists and turns of the plot. It’s important to take a passive break to cogitate calmly like this, given that our brains work more efficiently with pacing (a trait the Pomodoro technique plays into).

Pass Two : The Close Read

After this brief pause, I’ll then flick back casually through the pages I’ve just read. In particular, I’ll revisit those passages I felt were tough, or noticed myself slow down in during the first pass. For each one, I’ll re-read carefully, this time trying to translate in my head, paying more attention to the grammatical structures. I’ll also spend some time on words I didn’t get the first time round, looking for contextual clues to help guess the meaning (and not reaching straight for the dictionary).

This is the stage where I really prefer old-school paper books to Kindle ones. I’ll have a pencil by me, underlining any turns of phrase that sound really idiomatic or conversationally useful. With a pop-story like Nigheanan Mòra, there’ll be loads of those, thanks to all the snappy dialogue.  They’re the snippets where I’ve realised aha! So that’s how you say X in Gaelic.

Finally, after all that, I’ll spend some time cross-referencing those new structures in grammars and online materials like the LearnGaelic.scot dictionary and Wiktionary. Once I’m sure I’ve understood them, I’ll add the phrases to my Anki deck. Adding phrases is so much more effective that lifting just individual words from texts. We speak in phrases, not lone words, so by the end of this stage I have some truly useful material to drill. This phrase-lifting approach thoroughly mines a text for connectives and sentence frames – the bread and butter of fluency.

Find What Works For You

So there you have it – one way to work with authentic texts. It’s not rocket science or particularly groundbreaking, but it works for me. And it helps, in terms of discipline, to know that I have these regular steps to follow, to give my target language reading some kind of structure.

What I also find invaluable about it, in terms of motivation, is building in a reading for pleasure stage, which includes choosing material I find fun, as well as the time to enjoy it without pressure. Even if that is silly old rom coms.

After all, learning and practising languages shouldn’t just be work, work, work.

There are myriad ways to approach target language texts. What works for you? Let us know in the comments!

Eurovision 2022: Belgium’s Jérémie Makiese at the Second Semi-Final — EBU/SARAH LOUISE BENNETT

Happy Eurovision, Language Lovers!

Well, didn’t that year pass by quickly? It’s only Eurovision Day again!

It’s no secret: a love of Eurovision and language learning always went hand in hand for me. The song contest was the main reason I became so captivated by the idea of foreign languages as a kid, so I have a lot to thank it for.

But of course, things have changed over the years. The language rule was relaxed in 1999, allowing countries to enter in languages other than their official ones. In practice, that meant English for almost everybody. That said, enough brave and proud souls still keep the languages coming. France, Italy, Portugal and Spain: I’m looking gratefully at you in particular!

Still, there are always a few extra tongues that sneak in each year. In fact, this year we’re spoilt, as the final will include:

  1. Breton (for the second time for France, the last being in 1996)
  2. Dutch (for the first time in a final since 1998)
  3. Icelandic (most recently featuring in 2019 and 2013)
  4. Italian
  5. Latin (in the Serbian song – the last time being the repeated word Lapponia in Finland’s 1977 entry)
  6. Lithuanian (for the first time since 1994 – unless you count Samogitian as a dialect, in which case 1999)
  7. Portuguese
  8. Romanian (thanks to Moldova)
  9. Serbian
  10. Spanish (including a little in Romania’s entry)
  11. Ukrainian

Now call me an optimist, but that’s pretty good going for a competition which no longer enforces a language rule. And if we’re including the semis, we also had Albanian, Croatian, Greek and Slovene in 2022. Thumbs up to all those countries proving that English language participation still isn’t a given, even after 23 years of the free language rule.

In any case, however you are marking this great day, have a wonderful, joyful Eurovision.

And enjoy the languages!

Learning Devanagari on Duolingo (Screenshot)

Learning Devanagari ‘Just Because’ : On Not Needing a Reason

Have you ever learnt anything just because? Without any specific motivation or goal in mind? Learning something for the heck of it is a valid goal in itself, of course, and exactly how I’ve ended up with a basic knowledge of Devanagari script.

It all started off with an equally woolly, goal-diffuse pastime: collecting old language books. Some time last year, I added a lovely, pristine copy of the late 90s Teach Yourself Nepali to my collection. I bought it for the sake of completion, if anything. It filled a gap in my TY hoard.  But true to my New Year’s dabbling promise to myself, I spent a little time working through the first chapter. I found myself fascinated by the script, but a bit overwhelmed by the book’s everything-at-once introduction to it.

After a bit of Googling and Wikipediation, I realised that Devanagari is the script of choice for both Nepali and Hindi. What’s more, I remembered, Duolingo has a Hindi course. Surely I’d find a gentler introduction to the script there.

And didn’t I just. Duolingo introduces Devanagari very comfortably and gradually across the four initial lessons of its Hindi course. Each one contains just a subset of letters, and there’s no pressure to progress until you’re ready for the next tranche of beautiful, curved characters.

Casual Devanagari

So I started spending five minutes here and there on it. I approached it as a bit of fun, a pattern-matching game. As the lessons don’t contain actual words, that’s all it was – and it was all the more fun for it. I felt I was testing my memory, keeping my visual recognition skills sharp, and having a bit of fun casual mind-gaming.

Not only that, but it turned out to be a handy way to get my score up on days when I was too busy, or too tired, to do full-blown language lessons in the app. In five minutes of short practice lessons, I could clock up enough XP to keep me afloat for another day. Devanagari became my free pass.

Months later, I’ve almost learnt Devanagari by accident. I’ve barely noticed those characters settling into my synapses. And it’s there, if I ever need it, for learning Nepali, Hindi, or any of the other languages that are written in it.

It’s a far cry from my experiences as a schoolteacher, where there was often a pressure to justify language learning in utilitarian terms. To students, to parents, to ‘core’ subject staff – you name it. For sure, there are many very practical reasons to learn a language, and we all became adept at tripping them off, on cue.

But my Devanagari journey serves as a nice reminder that there doesn’t have to be a point at all, beyond ‘just because’. If there’s enjoyment, if there’s contentment, if there’s curiosity and it’s satisfied, that can be the whole point. Learn what you like.

An old, brick-style mobile phone. The notification problem was significantly less noticeable with these! Image from freeimages.com.

Creating a Notification-Free Language Routine

We’re slaves to our mobile devices these days. At least that’s what a whole tranche of research suggests, popularised in books like How to Break Up With Your Phone, Digital Minimalism and Smart Phone, Dumb Phone. Mobile operating systems bake in an addiction-dependency loop, the notification system being the carrot to our donkey brains. We just can’t help coming back for more.

I took a short study break away recently, in order to get some well-needed head space. My mistake? I didn’t plan any notification downtime. And it was my language learning apps that rudely interrupted my calm most, calling me to constant action. Green owl, I’m particularly looking at youIt’s time for your lesson! You were knocked out of the top ten! There’s still time to move up in the Diamond league!

Now, I’m a good lad and I always do my daily Duo. But the nagging began to feel a bit… stressful.

Pavlov’s Notifications

There’s an element of shtick to all this, of course, that Duolingo has very successfully spun into social media gold. It’s genius, to be honest; a top-class case study in building a brand identity. That mock menace is all part of the fun in the learning. It’s often great to have bad cop on our backs, cajoling us into action when we’d rather just idle.

But it can all feel a bit Pavlov’s dogs at times.

As a bit of a control freak myself, I find that aspect particularly unsettling. How much control have I ceded to my phone’s notification system? To what extent am I still enacting my own free will here? And how well has that notification system trained me to keep running back for more endorphin hits, even sans notification? Checking the phone first thing in the morning, walking to various destinations (never a great idea), last thing at night…

If I were a dog, my trainer would be collecting an award right now.

Granted, we’re not talking about mindless entertainment or trivial content. Those language learning pings emanate from some of the best educational apps out there: Duolingo, Anki, Glossika. Surely that isn’t a waste of time?

Well, no. But as part of a wider problem of notification addiction, I thought it was time to wrest control back just a little. To start using these resources on my own terms again.

Off With His Notification!

So it’s off with the Duolingo notifications, for a start. As much as I love the competitive side of it – daily targets, leagues, monthly quests – I hate being told what to do (it’s that control freak in me again). I already love doing my daily lessons. I’m not going to forget, so you don’t have to stress me out by reminding me every five minutes that I’ve dropped out of the top ten.

Likewise, I’m always on the lookout for more non-digital opportunities to learn and practise foreign languages. I’m building up an old-school language library, and taking time to go through those wonderful, physical materials mindfully, and far from my phone. I build in plenty of one-to-one and group classes to get time with real human beings. I’m using my devices for more slow learning tasks like reading books and listening to podcasts, which complement the fast-and-furious educational app mode (variety is key!). And I’m trying to follow general advice around breaking phone addiction: having a no-scroll rule for morning and night, and giving myself a phone curfew.

It is possible to break notification addiction, while still benefitting from wonderful resources like Duolingo. You just have to cede to your own inner control freak now and again.

Icelandic horses. Image from freeimages.com.

Learning Icelandic and Norwegian Together : Close Buddies and False Friends

There are advantages and disadvantages to learning very closely related languages together. And despite the benefits generally outweighing the snags, false friends are probably the most irksome spot of that downside. Icelandic and Norwegian are one such pairing that seems really popular in polyglot circles lately.

Because of the conservatism of Icelandic, tackling the two often feels like studying contemporary and ‘historical’ Norse side by side (although we need to be careful not to fall into that trap – Icelandic is a modern language that has been developing from Old Norse as long as Norwegian has).

That closeness gives us plenty of hooks to transfer knowledge. For example, Iceland þ (th) will show up as Norwegian t where the latter has inherited the same word:

🇮🇸 þreyttur – 🇳🇴 trøtt (tired)

But elsewhere, even when there is a really transparent cognate pair, meaning and use have drifted in the sands of time.

Traps to Trip You Up

One subtle cognate slip-up occurs with semsom, the relativiser in clauses such as the book that I read. Icelandic and Norwegian agree as far as that is concerned:

🇮🇸 bókin sem ég las – 🇳🇴 boka som jeg leste

But that’s all they can agree on. Firstly, sem is not optional in Icelandic, whereas Norwegian can do as English does and simply say boka jeg leste.

What’s more, they also fall out when it comes to the other, more prepositional use, as in like a cat:

🇮🇸 eins og köttur – 🇳🇴 som en katt

That’s, like, a bit tricky.

Taking a Liking

Likewise, líkur / lik (alike) don’t always map onto each other like for like. While ‘they are alike‘ can be:

🇮🇸 þeir eru líkar – 🇳🇴 de er like

…in Icelandic, you’re more often than not going to come up against that eins again to mean ‘alike’:

🇮🇸 þeir eru eins

As eins clearly derives from the number one, it’s not hard to connect this to phrases like one and the same in English, or en og samme in Norwegian. Still, Icelandic uses eins pretty much everywhere that Norwegian uses like, so it’s another distinction to mark on the map.

Add to the fact that Icelandic uses cognate líka for also (også in Norwegian), and it has even more potential to be a confuser.

Do You Really Like It?

And like it or not, we’re not finished with like yet. It actually turns out that it really likes to mess with us. The Old Norse verb líka has ended up in both languages (just as English ended up with like from a more distant common ancestor). However, in Icelandic, líka is used in purely impersonal expressions:

🇮🇸 mér líkar það (lit. to me likes/pleases it)

…whereas in Norwegian, it works just the way like does in English, with the liker as the subject, and a direct object as the liked thing:

🇳🇴 jeg liker det (I like it)

Not only that: while expressions with líka in Icelandic do translate as like, they’re not the most colloquial way to express liking any more, and may come across as rather archaic. These days, you’re better off with a phrase using skemmtilegur (amusing, entertaining) like:

🇮🇸 mér finnst það skemmtilegt (to me finds-itself it amusing)

Admittedly, these quirks can seem less than amusing as a beginner learner, to be sure.

Crazy House

Funnily enough, it’s the realm of house and home where a little cluster of words diverges quite radically in meaning. Perhaps it’s not surprising for words relating to everyday living arrangements; as customs and practices change, old terms get repurposed and attached to ever more differing concepts. But stand by: this set seems like it went through a tumble dryer.

Norwegian rom will be familiar to English speakers as the cognate room. It meant largely the same in Old Norse – any room or internal space. But in Icelandic, it can now have the meaning bed. There’s quite an interesting theory for how that shift happened here.

Meanwhile, Norwegian seng, which means bed, is cognate with Icelandic sæng – which means duvet. And Norwegian dyne, which is duvet, materialises as Icelandic dýna – which means mattress. Utter bedroom confusion (as if deciding which side to sleep on wasn’t hard enough already).

Honorable Mentions

There are, predictably, plenty of these pitfalls between the languages – far too many for a short article. But amongst the hotchpotch of favourite falseish friends between Icelandic and Norwegian are two more favourites of mine.

Firstly, the word lag can mean layer in both languages. In Icelandic, however, it can also mean song. It’s notably a word in the title of one of Iceland’s most successful Eurovision entries, the boppy Eitt lag enn (one more song) of 1990. In Norwegian, on the other hand, it can mean teamOne more team just doesn’t sound as fun, does it?

Along similar lines, we have grein (spelt gren in some varieties of Norwegian), which means branch to both Icelanders and Norwegians. But in Icelandic, the very same word is used for an article in a newspaper. A case of a word branching out, perhaps?

Variety Show

It’s all fun and games, of course, and one of the reasons it can be so fascinating to learn languages within the same grein of a family tree. For one thing, you end up collecting juicy etymological trivia in droves (the kind of stuff you can spin out for an upbeat language blog, for instance).

But a final point for fellow dual learners concerns the variety of Norwegian you learn. If, instead of vanilla Bokmål, you study Nynorsk, or any of the traditional dialects of Norway under that umbrella, you might well come across a few more cognates and similarities to Icelandic. Bokmål, as the heir to Riksmål and the imported Dano-Norwegian of centuries past, has levelled out some of the more Norsey features of traditional norsk. Dialects often preserve these beautifully. If you’re up for exploring this further, then a good place to start is NRK’s language programme Språksnakk, which regularly answers questions on local vocab features that bear more than a passing resemblance to islenska.

Do you have similar experiences with this or any other pair of languages? Let us know your favourite drifting cognates in the comments!

Building Blocks. Image by Jeff Prieb, FreeImages.com.

Building Blocks for Faster Fluency

The highlight of my language learning week was a short, spontaneous dialogue in Swahili. Before I get too big for my boots, I should add that it was about buying bananas, and wasn’t based on fact. Rather, it was invented on the spot in a university conversation class. But the point is, I coped with spontaneous conversation after just two or three weeks of learning a language. You can too – it’s all down to building blocks.

So what is a building blocks approach to language learning? It might be best to define it first by what it is not. Learning via building blocks is the opposite of rote phrase learning. Instead of static, clunky chunks, it focuses on mastering a limited but optimal set of words and phrases to combine in multiple permutations of useful sentences.

It’s not quite the same as learning an exhaustive grammar of a language, which is the longer-term route to manipulating language spontaneously, rather than relying on stock phrases. The difference is that building blocks learning focuses on efficiency, favouring the most useful bits and pieces to get you up and running super quickly.

Ready-Made Building Blocks

Unsurprisingly. whole language learning techniques have been built on the principle of shuffling basic blocks around. One of the most familiar from the bookshops is the Michel Thomas method. These use a chatty student-teacher format to gradually introduce simple building blocks, and invite the student to play around with the cumulative result. As such, the real skill students gain is the art of sentence creation on the fly, rather than plain old parroting. I’ve found them fantastic introductions that get students communicating in full, novel sentences extremely quickly.

Recently – big thanks once again to the lovely folk on the polyglot social media circuit – I found out about a whole bunch of free, enthusiast-authored courses that also follow this magic blocks system. The Language Transfer channel on YouTube hosts a whole set of language courses, from the author’s native Greek to – yes, you guessed it – Swahili. They take a model learner through a whole set of jigsaw pieces to spark immediate, spontaneous communicating.

Custom Blocks

So how did the building blocks approach play out in my Swahili class, and why was it so effective?

Swahili verbs lend themselves to a ‘slot machine’, or ‘lego’ type approach, as our tutor likes to put it. You can easily swap in and out a very regular set of morphemes for person and tense. Knowing just ni- (I), u- (you), a- (he/she), and -li-/-na-/-ta- (past, present and future tense markers), plus a handful of verb stems, a learner can express a huge amount in Swahili. This is the ‘permutation strategy’ that makes knowing just a little bit of language very productive. And every language has hooks like this.

The Swahili example shows building blocks at the tiny end of the scale, working with little bits of words. At the other end, larger chunks like ‘opinion blocks’ can be a great boost. In Greek, for example, I like to chat with my tutors about what’s going on in the world. A hefty topic, you might think. But in reality, it’s enough to have a stock ‘building set’ of a few phrases such as “I like …“, “I don’t agree…“, “… annoys me” and so on. Like those Swahili lego bricks, you can build whole conversations out of those spare parts.

Banana Split

The proof of the pudding – or the bananas, in my case – is in the eating. I’m really pleased at how much I managed to say in Swahili after a couple of weeks of this process. And it’s all down to those building blocks, and an effective teacher who makes great use of the technique.

If you’re about to start a new language, consider giving one of those courses a try. And if you’re struggling to improve your conversation in an existing skill, try chunking it up a bit into home-made building blocks. You will simply go bananas at your progress.

A picture of a little yellow flower. Image from freeimages.com

It’s the Little Things : Serendipity and Lockdown Learning

It’s the little things that keep us going in challenging times. And no exception this week, which brought a tranche of serendipitous rediscoveries that kept the housebound language learning ticking over, preserving at least a modicum of precious lockdown sanity.

Many of us now have a heap of extra time on our hands at home right now. So clearly, many of these archaeological finds proceed from the fact that a lot of surprise spring-cleaning is going on. And from old, forgotten but effective study tools, to long-misplaced books, the little things keep coming.

It was the spirit of serendipity that gave me the biggest language-learning smile-moment of the week: my old Bose SoundTouch 20 WiFi speakers, resurrected to new life.

A picture of my Bose SoundTouch 20 Wifi speaker, playing the Norwegian radio station NRK P2.

Long shelved media equipment comes into its own. My old Bose SoundTouch 20 now serves as a precious connection to target language countries.

I’d shelved this heavy-duty media beauty some years ago, as it lacked BlueTooth. Instead, it works across WiFi only, interfacing with devices on the same broadband connection. Smaller,  more portable Bluetooth speakers just seemed less cumbersome and easier to connect to now and again.

But what has this to do with language learning?

technically magic little things

Well, the SoundTouch has a special magic trick: six chunky preset buttons sitting on the top of its hefty frame. Once paired with your device, you can tune these to Spotify playlists or world radio stations of your choice. And, after that, you don’t even need your device to be connected to play them. Just tap a preset button and it bursts into life.

I put these to great use all those years ago, when the machine was shiny and new. I tuned three of the presets to foreign language music playlists on my Spotify account. The other three, I pointed at various radio station live feeds from countries of study. Then, whenever the mood took me, I could immerse myself in the target language at the touch of a button, no fuss at all.

How could I have forgotten about this wonderful piece of equipment?

Needless to say, it is sitting proudly in the living room again. This time round, it is primed with two foreign music playlists, and four radio stations: NRK P2 (Norwegian), RÚV Rás 1 (Icelandic), NDR Info (German) and Polskie Radio 24 (Polish). Instant immersion at a tap. And as always, the quicker and easier a language learning habit is to implement, the more I do it. It doesn’t get much quicker and easier than button-pushing.

What’s more, it has become a valuable portal to a global village while travel is shut down. If you are struggling with your big world suddenly feeling very small and restricted, you can take advantage of this remedy without fancy equipment. Even placing the link to a free radio app on the first screen of your phone will make the world feel a little closer.

Tidy little things

Bringing objects of love and fascination closer is a recurring theme. Not only forgotten overseas sounds, but long-missed books resurfaced during these long, quiet evenings.

The aim of the exercise was to move the books from my most active language learning / maintenance projects to sit right next to my desk for easier access. This was no mean feat; thanks to a rather hectic peripatetic lifestyle pre-shutdown, there was quite a bit of disorder to tackle.

The resulting bookshelf rummage was a revelation. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are, how much we have. From the depths of obscurity, I plucked a wealth of beautiful books that had almost entirely slipped my mind. Not defunct old tomes, but materials worth going over again (or for the first time, in some cases – the shame of it).

Treasured books are indeed some of the very best little things.

A picture of some of my language books, organised neatly on shelves.

Is there anything more satisfying than reorganising your home library?

Talking of serendipity, as I sit here writing this listening to NRK P2, my favourite Norwegian language programme, Språkteigen, pops on unexpectedly. I always listen to this as a podcast, never on broadcast radio. It feels somehow more special now. All the little things in their rightful place again; the language gods are happy.

What have you rediscovered in lockdown from your language learning past? Let us know in the comments!

Accent - sometimes you can be too good! Image by Betty Miller from FreeImages.com

Great accent, shame about the rest!

How is your accent in the language you’re learning? I’m pretty pleased with mine. In fact, I think it might be a little too good.

Before the eye-rolling starts, let me explain. This isn’t an embarrassing lapse in modesty and perspective. The fact is, accent is one of the things I really strive to perfect very early on in my learning. The trouble is, a very good accent can give a false impression of general overall proficiency, even if you’re not quite there yet.

There’s Norway you’re Norwegian…

It’s something that has cropped up plenty of times in my language adventures. This weekend, I spent a couple of nights in lovely Trondheim, Norway. Now, my Norwegian isn’t bad at all. It’s one of the languages I immerse myself in most, watching Norwegian TV, getting my news from Norwegian sources and reading fiction in Norwegian. I’d say I hover around a B1/2 – an achievement I’m proud of and not bad for someone who doesn’t live in the country.

That said, Norwegian is a patchwork of sometimes vastly different dialects. I don’t always cope with that diversity, especially when I come across a new variety. And Trøndersk, of which Trondheim’s dialect is a prime example, is particularly unique.

The sticking point is this: I have worked on getting a solid Oslo pronunciation under my belt. Because of that, when I rattle off a request in a hotel or shop situation, I sound like I have a pretty solid grasp of a colloquial, spoken variety of the language. When I get the reply in full-on local dialect, I get that gut-turning feeling of the rug being pulled from under my feet.

Yes, who hasn’t felt that when learning a language? But when you make a special effort to sound like a native, it can compound the problem.

Great accent – shame about the listening skills!

Language heptathletes

This is, of course, the nature of language learning. It is a multi-skill discipline. In effect, we are all heptathletes competing across reading, writing, speaking, listening and other combined events at our own linguistic Olympics. Just like a heptathlon, every one of us performs differently across those skills. Accent is one of those areas that some struggle with, but others take to straight away.

Focusing on accent early on – as your special event, so to speak – is no bad thing by any means. For many of us, it is part of the fun of language learning. It’s all about trying to pass, attempting to shed the baggage of your first language background, trying on a different culture for size, the giddy thrill of let’s pretend. A great accent means hearing the sounds of a different place, a different people, a different world leave your lips. For me, it’s one of the most exciting parts of learning a language.

Maybe you are a natural mimic and love to imitate foreign language sounds from the get-go. It could be, like me, that you are fascinated by dialects and accents as a route to the authentic heart and soul of a target language culture. Perhaps you’ve worked hard on accent-improving techniques like shadowing.

But an accent-heavy focus might leave you scrambling to keep up your first, amazing impressions when you speak to locals abroad. The problem is partly one of over-rehearsal. As actors will confirm, you can prepare your character to death. You know your part so rigidly that there is zero room for flexibility. Learning to speak your part too convincingly can leave you little time to focus on being prepared for the unpreparable.

The answer? Keep loving accent and pronunciation work, but introduce some systematic wider focus into your study to redress the imbalance.

Perfect accent – with a side of syntax

The best kind of resources for skill-balancing are those that take a blended approach. They provide plenty of speech modelling to keep our accent ambitions fulfilled. But they also feature content that trains variable syntax alongside accent.

Personally, I find mass sentence methods like Glossika incredibly helpful. Glossika drills native-speed pronunciation through a bank of hundreds of well-formed, colloquial sentences. Crucially, it includes stylistic variants on a theme that might trip you up in natural speech. The Scottish Gaelic version, for example, exposes you to not only “càit a bheil …?” (where is …) but also the shortened, more colloquial form “cà’il …?” amongst other alternatives.

For an even tighter focus on listening skills, it pays to keep your ear to the ground for new techniques. For a start, there is some excellent advice on listening coming from language teachers in schools, so it pays to keep up-to-date with what is going on in the teacher circuit. Many of their confidence-improving techniques for young students are as applicable to us as individual learners.

Let it go…

Finally – and this might be the most drastic and hard-to-swallow piece of advice for all who love working on their accent – is to deliberately try not to be so impressive. Let a little of your true self colour how you speak a foreign language. Cultivate a ‘learner accent’.

If you want to keep the fun stakes high, maybe even try a different foreign accent within your language – German with a French accent, anyone? Have fun being non-native! It’s still an accent, right?

What are your experiences with accent training in language learning? Let us know in the comments!

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

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.

The Edinburgh Fringe is a great opportunity for language lovers to get some target language entertainment! Image from freeimages.com.

Laughs for Linguists : Polyglot Picks for Edinburgh Fringe 2019

The Edinburgh Fringe is back! And, in what has become a Polyglossic tradition, we have leafed through the flyers and brochures to compile our polyglot picks for #EdFringe 2019.

There is something on offer for every language aficionado, with culturally diverse shows spanning comedy, music and theatre. Some are performed in the target language, while others are in English, but featuring strong links with target languages of interest. Whether for some listening practice, or simply a bit of cultural exploration, there is plenty to keep polyglots and linguaphiles busy this August in Edinburgh.

French 🇫🇷

Surprisingly, the festival line-up is missing its usual Piaf and Brel content, usually a staple of the francophone side of the fest. Never fear, though: there are still a couple of Gallic gems on the list. Appropriately, a couple of them are even hosted at the Institut Français Écosse.

German 🇩🇪

  • Henning Wehn: Get On With It
    Festival favourite Henning Wehn, German Comedy Ambassador to the UK, is back with his quirky take on UK life through teutonic eyes. Expect quite a bit of reference to the B-word, naturally – one of the recurring themes running across successive recent fringes!
  • Franz and Marie : Woyzeck Retold
    This might catch your eye if you read German as a foreign language at university; Georg Büchner’s unfinished Woyzeck is a regular feature on first-year reading lists. Enjoy this fresh adaptation of a play with challenging – and still painfully relevant – themes.
  • The literary vein continues with Borchert – A Life. Aiming to bring the short-lived German writer to the attention of English-speaking audiences, the show highlights “a life worth knowing about“.
  • This year’s festival also sees several plays emerge dealing with various themes from 20th Century German history. Walls and Bridges brings to life a long-forgotten uprising of East German students in 1953. Meanwhile, The Good Scout dramatises a rather eyebrow-raising pre-war collaboration.
  • And where would we be without a good Lieder recital at the Edinburgh Fringe? Thankfully, Susan McNaught, Barbara Scott and Robert Duncan step up to that challenge, presenting Schubert and Wagner to festival-goers.

Italian 🇮🇹

  • Corde InCanto
    For a truly polyglot experience, give this Italian duo a whirl. As well as Italian arias, there are German Lieder and Spanish songs mixed into the musical menu.
  • Arlecchino Torn in Three
    Bilingual, family-friendly fun is the order of the day here. Blending Italian, English and musical accompaniment, the production brings the masked magic of Venice to the festival.
  • Me and the Mask – Commedia dell’Arte
    More hands-on, kid-friendly, masked fun, this time taking place at Edinburgh’s Italian Cultural Institute. Attending the show makes a great introduction to the centre, which is a valuable source of information on local events and courses.

Spanish 🇪🇸

  • Drunk Lion
    Drunk Lion is back!  Aptly for learners, this is an original play about an life-changing encounter with the Spanish language. And what’s more, it’s still one of the festival’s many free shows. That means there’s no excuse to miss it if you’re passing by the Newsroom Bar!  Incidentally, the venue is also a nice place to grab a drink and a bite to eat.
  • Sonia Aste : Made In Spain
    With a personable set exploring UK-Spanish connections, Sonia Aste shares her unique perspectives on our cultural touchpoints and differences. A dynamic and interactive approach ensures that this will make for a lively evening out!
  • As always, there is a broad choice for lovers of traditional Spanish guitar music and Flamenco. Highlights include Alba Flamenca, ¡Viva el Flamenco! and – particularly tempting if you have little ones to keep engaged – Flamenco for Kids!

Share your Edinburgh Fringe

Of course, this is a miniscule representation of the hundreds and hundreds of shows on offer. Apologies to all the wonderful shows we missed out. Perhaps some of the above will pique your interest if you are visiting Edinburgh this August. But if you attend a gem we overlooked, please share it with us in the comments!

To comb through the multiple offerings yourself and buy tickets online, visit https://tickets.edfringe.com/. And have a wonderful Edinburgh Fringe!