A pile of second-hand language books, mostly 1980s Teach Yourself titles.

Second-hand Language Books : Practical Treasures For A Pittance

Brand-new learning resources can cost a fortune these days. But there’s another, cheaper and more nostalgia-piquing way: second-hand language books from the 80s. After all, aren’t the 80s cool again now?

My most recent time trip started a couple of weeks ago, reminiscing with my parents. The conversation wandered to G.W.Hurley’s, a little local bookshop and newsagent in Burnham-on-Sea, nestled in the High Street and still going after 100 years in business. As a youngster, I spent a lot of time in Burnham on family seaside holidays, and I credit my first fascination with languages to that very shop.

Budding Linguist’s Aladdin’s Cave

In G.W.Hurley’s, my nan and uncle would unleash young Rich, not yet in secondary school, for many happy hours. It was like an Aladdin’s cave for a curious mind. There, in the tiny language section – maybe two shelves at most – were these pocket-sized, blue-covered Teach Yourself books that offered windows into other worlds. Other 80s kids will know what I’m talking about – those uniform covers that bound those contemporary TY editions series together. French, German, Spanish, and more… All the subjects I’d heard the big kids studied when they went to secondary school.

Well, sifting through those happy browsing memories got me digging through some old storage boxes in the present day. I knew I still had at least a couple of those cerulean gems lying around. Sure enough, after some rummaging, Teach Yourself Finnish and Teach Yourself Maltese saw the light of day again, pristine and proudly cared for, but forgotten for some years. I’d had others formerly, too, since either passed on to friends or family, or donated to charity shops. But I had a thought:

How cool would it be to recreate a bit of those 80s language bookshelf feels?

Second-hand Language Books, 3, 2… 1!

First, I set to looking in the most obvious place: the second-hand bookshops of Edinburgh. The city is a goldmine for used books, and it seemed rude not to take advantage. Sure enough, the search threw up plenty of the bonnie blue paperbacks, some more elusive than others. You’ll not struggle to source the cyan volumes of Teach Yourself French, German, Italian or Spanish at all. It’s quirkier titles like Teach Yourself Serbo-Croat (which isn’t even really a thing any more…) and Teach Yourself Swahili that are trickier (and more expensive) to hunt down.

So, onto wider territory, and Amazon Marketplace, eBay and AbeBooks. I couldn’t believe my luck: the sites are replete with second-hand language books from multiple bulk sellers, many with free postage. And, even better:

Many are available, in great condition, for less than a couple of pounds each!

Needless to say, I started racking them up. I began with some of the familiar titles, including those I’d given away years ago. Teach Yourself Everyday Spanish, Teach Yourself Italian, Teach Yourself Modern Greek. But then, as I searched, I started coming across other lovely, nostalgic gems that I used to have and love: the Hugo In Three Months books, the old Routledge Colloquial books with the white covers, the Cassell’s Colloquial handbooks. I started adding in languages that I never studied, or want to study in the future, or have just a passing interest in. In other words, I found myself recreating the whole bookshop! And friends, it is becoming addictive. Somewhere in the process I seem to have become a book collector.

Four 1980s editions of Teach Yourself language books.

Into the blue…

Practically Speaking

In any case, as they arrived, and I excitedly leafed through them, I realised what gems they all are, especially considering the minuscule price. It turns out that the timeframe that I chose for purely nostalgic reasons – the Eighties – is a lucky pick. Older than that, and courses can be a bit too chalk ‘n’ talk for many. In other words, the style is that classical, old-fashioned, rigid presentation-plus-reproduction model. Now, I don’t mind this at all myself – in fact, I learnt a whole load of Polish that way – but it doesn’t always foster the most practical, real-world skills!

On the other hand, in the 80s, we see the focus in language learning beginning to shift to a more communicative approach. In response, TY had already started to rewrite whole sections of their language catalogue. We begin to see printed dialogues, for a start, with a focus on colloquial language. And that is generally much better suited to today’s polyglot goals. The second-hand language books of my childhood era started to treat language as a living, dynamic thing, rather that very meta way of the past of knowing about a language.

A page from the 1980s edition of Teach Yourself Italian.

No longer all chalk ‘n’ talk – the 1980s swing towards communicative language learning is reflected in more colloquial dialogues like this one in Teach Yourself Italian (1985).

It’s also interesting what was included in earlier volumes but dropped in rewrites. Hugo’s Greek in Three Months from the early 80s, for example, has an incredibly useful section on Greek idioms and common turns of phrase. I’ve never seen anything like it in later manuals, and it’s already proving handy in my iTalki conversation lessons.

A page from the 1980s edition of "Hugo's Greek in Three Months", entitled "Idiomatic Expressions".

The brilliantly useful ‘Idiomatic Expressions’ section of the early 80s “Hugo’s Greek in Three Months”.

Lastly (and leastly…) some of those little blue beauties are gorgeously pocket-sized paperbacks. While they won’t quite fit into the average pocket, they do seem to be generally more compact and portable than modern tomes. They’re ideal for stashing in a bag for trips and reading on the move.

All that, and for less than two quid a pop. Language learning on a budget!

All Paths Lead to Rome (and Madrid, and Berlin, and…)

In short, a nostalgia trip led me to rediscover some truly useful resources hiding in the past. First and foremost, these titles were personally meaningful, even beautiful, for the thoughts and feelings they stir up. But for pedagogically sound materials at an amazingly low price, you could do a lot worse than go hunting in the 80s. Those windows onto target languages and cultures may have dated a little, but the learning is sound.

I have more on the way… and browsing for them has become my latest linguistic compulsion!

Second hand language books.

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!

Let's dally in the valley: rhyme can be a great aide memoire. Picture from freeimages.com.

A Rhyme to Remember : Wordplay Vocab Fun

I was really struggling to learn a new word lately. It was κοιλάδα (kiládha), or valley, in Greek. Nothing would make it stick. That is, until I realised the power of rhyme.

The word  has an obvious and natural rhyme in Greek: a much more foundational, essential word, namely Ελλάδα (Elládha), meaning Greece. Suddenly, I had a way to anchor the new word to the existing one in memory:

η κοιλάδα στην Ελλάδα
i kiládha stin Elládha
the valley in Greece

It creates such a musical phrase, and one that is so easy to picture in the mind, that suddenly, remembering it is no longer a bane. Finally, it stuck!

Rhyme is a brilliant aide memoire for words that stubbornly refuse to settle in your mental lexicon. Like other techniques such as rhythm, rhyming enlists sound effects and wordplay to add a memorable dimension to learning material.

So why is it so effective?

Rhyme and Reason

Rhyming is a triple whammy when it comes to language learning. First of all, the creation of a rhyme anchors one new word to another existing one, neural-networking on what you already know. But it also creates a story, a vivid mental picture that helps with recall (much like a beefed-up version of the Linkword system). That valley in Greece of mine is a really nice tableau to bolster the words with a visual cue.

But even more powerfully, rhyme circumvents the ‘words in isolation’ problem of learning new vocabulary. Instead of a lone word, we have added value in the grammatical context of the rhyming snippet, even if that is simply the odd article or conjunction as above. Every little helps. 

Like Lego, rhymes are extendable, too. You can expand the lexical scene by tagging on more and more rhyming words, with your memory the only limit. Another difficult-to-remember word for me in Greek, for example, is χιονοστιβάδα (chionostivádha), meaning avalanche. As another -άδα (-ádha) word, I can simply build it into my little poem:

η χιονοστιβάδα στην κοιλάδα στην ελλάδα
i chionostivádha stin kiládha stin elládha
the avalanche in the valley in Greece

Read phrases like this out loud, and the rhythmic dimension also becomes very clear – yet another support to bolster the memory.

Rhyming Grammar

In fact, learning whole snippets of language in rhyming couplets, rather than individual words, can support grammar acquisition. The following German pair serves as a great example of the dative case with feminine singular nouns:

  • an der Wand (on the wall)
  • in der Hand (in the hand)

You can build rhythmic rhymes like this into more extensive ‘mini poems’ to contain a range of vocab and grammar points. This can be a lot of fun: teaching German, I regularly worked the rhyming game into my lessons. In advance, I would put together a daft bit of verse containing the central words and structures for the current topic. Nothing too extensive – just a few lines of rhyming couplets. Perhaps something like this:

Ich habe einen grünen Hund, er ist ziemlich klug,
Er spricht mit Katzen jeden Tag, und fährt dann mit dem Zug.
I have a green dog, he’s pretty clever,
He talks to cats every day, and then takes the train.

Admittedly, that is a pretty nonsensical scene. And you have to think a little creatively to make this stuff scan! But it is worth the effort: in there, we have some animal vocab, a transport word, and a host of important grammatical points: adjective endings, verb conjugations and so on. Two lines, but packed with handy language learning gems.

These poetical delights would be on the whiteboard when my students entered the room. As the lesson kicked off, we would read through the lines together. Then, I would rub out a few random words, and we read again, reciting the missing words from memory. The process would repeat – rubbing out, reading, rubbing out, reading –  until nothing would be left on the board.

But – as if by magic! – the students could now recite the whole thing. At the end of the lesson, I would ask them to try again from memory once again, and, to their surprise, they could reproduce the whole thing. What a great confidence boost for kids who so often doubted their language learning abilities.

A Rhyme-Honoured Tradition

The power of rhyme is hardly a secret – it is a famously great technique for aiding memory. We have myriad oral traditions of epic poetry to prove the point. For millennia, stories have been passed from generation to generation through memorised verse; ancient texts such as Beowulf may have literary lives stretching back long before they were ever written down.

But you don’t need to be a literary genius to benefit personally – just a handful of words will suffice for some verse. And let’s face it: as beginners, we only have a handful of words to play with. But that makes more a greater creative challenge, right? 

And for when words fail, you can turn to online, multilingual rhyming dictionaries like the following:

The wordplays needn’t stop at rhyme, either. You can play around with other techniques, such as alliteration, to create more memorable vocabulary notes. Duolingo has recently introduced the phrase deiseil agus deònach (ready and willing) into its Gaelic course, for example. Doesn’t that trip off the tongue nicely?

Rhyme Stone Cowboy

So, a little rogue rhyming can go a long way to making tricky vocab stick. Next time you feel the uphill struggle, maybe try going for a ride in the kiládha stin Elládha

Search those etymology dictionaries for evidence of semantic change! Picture from freeimages.com

Semantic Change : The Double Lives of Cognates

When I was young, I was a very silly girl. Not in the familiar, modern sense, of course, but in the long-lost meaning of those two words in English: a happy child.

Semantic change – words taking on new meanings over time – is a fascinating garden path of surprising twists and turns. And it’s not only a fitting focus for linguistics nerds, either. Travelling back down the path of language change can lead language learners to the crossover points that tie foreign languages to our own. It can be thoroughly eye-opening to learn of the double lives that words in related languages have come to lead. Ultimately, comparing cognates also bolsters our armoury in the quest to gain a deeper understanding of vocabulary.

A Worsening Situation…

Take silly, for example. Its rather dramatic journey from happy to daft can be traced back to the Old English form sælig. Back then, it covered a range of happy nuances from happy, to blessed, to fortunate. Germanists might recognise its family heritage here: it is cognate with the German word selig, which today means blissfully happy. So what happened to poor old silly in English?

Historical linguistics studying semantic change identify several broad flavours of meaning drift. What silly shows is pejoration, the application of a more and more negative meaning over time. It happens frequently in the history of words: knave is a rather old-fashioned word for a rogue, but originally just meant a boy, or servant. Of course, the opposite – amelioration – can happen too; just think of how bad, wicked and sick have been used in recent decades. And knight went the opposite way of knave, starting out as a mere boy but coming to take on quite haughty responsibilties. German cognate Knecht, of course, knew its station – it remains quite a lowly word.

On a slightly dispiriting side note, from a social standpoint, pejoration does seem to affect words for women with some degree of disproportion in English. For example, hussy, mistress, tart and wench all started out as quite neutral, uninsulting words. Language is the mirror of human culture, whether that be its pleasant or ugly side.

Straight and Narrow

Then, of course, we have girl. Back in Middle English times, the word referred to a child of any gender. Now, it is quite exclusively a female designation. And that is a classic case of narrowing of meaning from a general category to a more specific one.

Although cognates of girl don’t pop up in any high frequency vocab in related languages, there is an amusing, more obscure German analogue in Göre – a cheeky young childGöre has retained the gender-vagueness English lost, but has gained the slightly negative connotation of naughty (pejoration again!).

Learning More About Semantic Change

Taking a deep dive into semantic change is a fascinating way to work backwards in a language, revealing the maze of cross-language touch points. When the changes are as dramatic as the handful of words above, it can be fun tracing out this secret life of cognates.

Of course, pejoration, amelioration and narrowing are just a couple of a range of recognised processes of semantic change. To fall down this very addictive rabbit hole, check out Lyle Campbell’s chapter on the subject in his Historical Linguistics primer. The Wikipedia article on semantic change also gives a really helpful overview.

And if you find yourself hunting etymologies but lack access to behemoth resources like the OED, then Wiktionary is, as ever, always on hand. That site is fast becoming a second home…

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!

Christmas is coming! Make it a language learning one.

Last Minute Gifts for Language Learners

Yes, Christmas is just around the corner! And, if you’re anything like me, you enjoy a healthy (and very human) mix of perfect prep and last-minute lunacy. However well I plan, there are always a couple of things that sneak onto my to-do list in the last couple of days.

Never fear: if you still have language learning friends and family to treat, these are our top gift picks for linguistic stocking fillers.

Teach Yourself Tutor Series

There’s nothing more exciting to a linguist than a brand, spanking new language learning book. This year, Teach Yourself have really come up trumps with their ever-growing Tutor series of graded grammar lessons and drills.

The fact that these tomes are aimed at “Advanced Beginner” and above makes them particularly appealing to polyglot hobbyists, who often approach grammar with a ton of existing knowledge that can make basic primers boring. Add to that the fact that they’re available in some  lesser-studied languages with fewer available resources, and the series is a real winner. Props to Teach Yourself!

I’ve already invested in a couple, and am impressed at the clarity of explanation and usefulness of the exercises. I’d be smiling if I woke up to any more of these on Christmas Day, let me tell you.

My only request for the Teach Yourself Santa: please, an Icelandic version next year?

 

Virtual Chinese assistant

This tech project has been catching fire recently on funding site IndieGogo. It’s a virtual, conversational assistant designed specifically with the goal of learning Chinese in mind. Hěn hǎo!

It’s possible to pre-order Lily as a backer right now, which is a pretty exciting way to get in on ground level as an early adopter and supporter.

It is just available in Chinese for now, sadly (well, sadly for those of use who haven’t tackled Chinese – yet!). However, there is a hint that further languages will be added in future. Definitely worth bookmarking that page!

Otherwise, alternative virtual assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home have a slowly growing selection of language learning utilities, too. Amazon even introduced software for you to teach Alexa new languages in 2018, underlining a commitment to making the device more polyglot-friendly.

iTalki credits

Books and gadgets are ace, of course. But good old, human, face-to-face contact will add some real-world shine to someone’s Christmas language baubles.

There are few platforms as effective and reasonably priced as iTalki for online lessons. Whether your friends and family are already familiar with it or totally new, you can boost their learning with the gift of iTalki lessons credits.

I burn through mine at a rate of knots, so like-minded linguists will really appreciate some gifted learning time!

App Store credit

Similarly, we language learners can end up spending money like water when it comes to subscriptions for learning platforms. Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise… Premium tier access all adds up.

And it’s not just language-specific services, either. General productivity utilities like Evernote are fantastic learning tools with monthly or annual price tags. Netflix and Amazon Prime also have burgeoning collections of foreign-language viewing that linguists can devour.

As most such platforms are app-based, users can usually pay with app store credit directly on a mobile device. That makes gifting credit for app stores like iTunes or Google Play a great way to support your linguistic loved ones in their online language quest.

You can even acquire app store gift card codes for free through survey sites like Swagbucks. Surveys for pressies? Sign me up!

The gift of time

I’ve said it many times before, but the greatest gifts don’t have to cost anything. Solo learning can be a lonely business, and a bit of people power goes a long way. Why not commit to partnering a friend in their learning?

It’s not just about being a study buddy at the same language level, either. Studies repeatedly support the notion that we learn by teaching. In light of this, why not volunteer your time to your nearest and dearest as a peer student? That’s a gift to them and to you. Win-win.

However you celebrate this year, a wonderful Christmas to one and all. Good tidings of language learning joy – have a great one!

Variety adds a bit of a colour to your learning. (Image from freeimages.com)

Five ways to maintain variety in your language learning

Routine and regularity are cornerstones of language learning. But if your structure is too rigid, you might find yourself tiring of the same old, same old. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to work some variety into your language learning plan to keep things fresh.

There is evidence to suggest that a more varied learning approach might prevent context-bound recall. One stock study of Psych 101 classes shows how we remember more when we are in the same environment the material was learnt in. Of course, students can leverage that when preparing for exams. But perhaps an even better approach would be to employ variety to avoid binding your knowledge to specific circumstances. After all, you want those words to flow wherever you are, right?

Let’s take an example to illustrate the point. Do you, like me, sometimes find it easy to recall a word in Duolingo, phone in hand, but struggle to dredge it from memory in conversation? It could be that your mental record of that vocab item is bound to that specific context of using an app on your phone.

So, variety is key. But how can you hit that magic balance between routine and variation to free your recall?

Different platforms

We all have those favourite e-learning tools that we turn to first. Anki, Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise count amongst the most popular quick fixes that we can all build into our daily language task list. And they are excellent at their job; there is no need to use any of these favourites any less.

But instead, we can vary how – or, more specifically, on what – we use them.

Many language learning platforms like these are multi-platform, so you can play them on a variety of devices. Duolingo, for example, can be played on your phone, tablet or on any computer via the browser. Anki, Babbel and Memrise, too, can be played on a device or on the web.

If you always play on the same platform, change that up a little. Work through your Anki cards on the computer one day, and on your phone the next. Vary when you access it, too. Sometimes I will bring up Anki on my laptop during the day, for example, in a few spare moments between work tasks. At other times, I’ll use the mobile app while I’m waiting for a train.

Don’t always make your language app work a phone-in-hand learning session. 

Different times, different places

Just as simple a route to varying your routine is to change your environment. Mobile apps make this easy – you can learn anywhere you like. But even book-based learning can be mobile if you always make sure you have some course material in your bag wherever you go. If you find yourself with a spare half an hour in town, find a coffee shop and settle down with a chapter and a cappuccino.

Flexible resources help here, too. You may have both the paper and PDF / electronic versions of a resource, and these lend themselves to different environments. Leverage that by alternating between them, studying them at different times and in different places. The very fact that you can study the same resource in different formats is a boost to variety in itself.

Keep your scenery constantly changing, and your brain will not have a chance to bind recall with context-based clues.

Veer off course

If you doggedly stick to exactly the same learning materials every day, every week, then feelings of stagnation soon creep in. Pushing through the same course for weeks on end can seem like wading through sludge.

What to do when the beaten path gets muddy? Take a detour. You can achieve this in language learning by having a couple of courses on the go simultaneously. For instance, you might choose to work through both Colloquial French and Teach Yourself Complete French as part of your plan. Throw the new (and excellent) French Tutor into the mix too, and you have a range of course materials you can switch tracks between. Bored of one? Switch to the other for a lesson or two.

The joy of this is not limited just to the change of paper scenery. Different books explain things in different ways. And, given a range of explanations for the same grammatical rules, we often understand better.

It’s like viewing an object from several aspects. Together, those different views give you a much clearer mental picture of the object.

Dare to be non-linear

On that tack, whoever decreed that everybody must work through materials from cover to cover, never deviating from the plan? Naturally, course materials are written with linear progression in mind, and you need some structure. But it doesn’t need to be done to the letter.

From time to time, it does not hurt to jump forward a little. It can be quite exciting to sneak a peek at later chapters of a book. It’s like stealing a glance at what is to come in your learning journey. It reminds me a little of finding out what the ‘big kids’ are doing in the years above you at school. There’s a delicious anticipation about it, a sense of “so this is what I’ll be doing when I’m even better at my language!”.

In many ways, however, it is a completely legitimate way of pre-preparing yourself to learn future material even more effectively. By breaking away and racing ahead, even just for a moment, your brain can get a little head start. And, by the time you come to study that material for real, who knows what subconscious cogitations it has been subject to? You will positively run with it!

Back to the future

Breaking away from the linear is as valid for electronic resources as it is for book-based courses. For example, Duolingo offers more than just the familiar step-by-step, topic-based tree. It also features a Practise section, which selects a random set of words and phrases to test you on. There is no way to tell which topic Duolingo will throw at you, except that it will be one you have studied.

Here, it is about jumping backwards rather than forwards, offering an opportunity to strengthen material you have already covered. Rather than choosing – and therefore expecting – a particular topic, you hand the choice over to the platform. How about that for a bit of unpredictability? Give that a whirl regularly, and your brain will benefit from handling more unexpected material.

In the wild

Our learning resources and plans, of course, necessarily represent a safe bubble of predictability. This is no surprise; nobody wants to be overwhelmed when they first start learning a foreign language.

However, you can carefully stage-manage your gradual release into the wild of everyday language use. After all, there is no greater variety than the real world. A mindful choice of media materials like podcasts and news sites can be a safe dip of the toe into the waters of real-life language.

For a once-weekly dose of current affairs variety, I like the News In Slow … range for French, German, Italian and French students. The podcasts are free, although you can subscribe for extra support resources too, if you prefer to layer some structure on top of that. The language is slow and simple enough to get the gist as a beginner, but current enough to feel relevant.

If your language is not amongst that list, you can often find news programmes in your target language by trawling national broadcaster and other media sites. The Icelandic television company RÚV, for instance, has a daily news programme for kids called Krakkafréttir. And for Norwegian (Bokmål), learners can take advantage of KlarTale.no, a news resource aimed at readers with dyslexia and speakers of Norwegian as a second language.

As always with authentic texts, a bit of Googling will go a long way. I recently unearthed a treasure trove of simplified Icelandic texts intended for school learners. The authors probably never realised how useful they would be for those learning Icelandic overseas!

Gradual exposure to real-world, real-time resources will definitely keep your linguist brain on its toes.

Mix it up, max it out

I hope that the above points convince you that a combined structure-variety approach will maximise what you get out of your learning time. We are not learning robots, and mechanical, unchanging and unbending routine will do no human being much good in the long run.

Follow the variety principle, and keep your learning fresh!

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.

Colourful balloons

Children’s books for linguists: creative ways into languages

Being a linguaphile and a bibliophile often go hand in hand. I love languages and I love books. Both of these passions go straight to the heart of what it means to get creative with words. Certainly, tapping into creativity (often to the point of being bizarre and fantastical) has helped me to get ahead in languages. And there are few more creative resources in any language than children’s books!

There are some obvious benefits to using children’s books as language learning resources. The language in them will be accessible as a beginner, for one thing. Structure, vocabulary and topic will generally be very straightforward. What’s more, the subject matter can be familiar and predictable, especially in the case of children’s fiction; this is a gift to the active language learner, who likes to make educated guesses at new words rather than look everything up.

Culturally embedded bedtime reading

Native works can be a great introduction to the cultural background of your target language. For instance, children’s stories and fairytales often proceed from a long history of folk storytelling. In some cases, these date back to an ancient oral tradition. The highly popularised work of the Brothers Grimm, for example, draws together hundreds of tales from the collective consciousness of their time. The morals and aphorisms contained within them are echoed in popular culture to this day, being constantly recycled in modern media.

Their themes will be familiar to many non-native speakers, too, thanks to the ancient pedigree of many of the stories. One of my favourite children’s books in a foreign language is this huge tome of Norwegian eventyr. Many of these fairytales seem very familiar to anyone who was brought up with the Grimm’s traditional brand of fairytale, and it is easy to imagine the Proto-Germanic tribes – probably ancestors amongst them – telling versions of these long before they were written down.

Norwegian Fairytales

Norwegian Fairytales

Non-fiction

The place of children’s books in your language learning goes beyond storytelling, too. Reference material in the target language can be a brain-stretching replacement for easier, less challenging tools like Google Translate or a bilingual dictionary. A favourite of mine is this illustrated Icelandic dictionary for children. It is much more rewarding to look up an unfamiliar word here. It may use a little more brain-power, but it adds some valuable target language exposure to your reading.

The Icelandic Children's Dictionary - children's books for reference can be excellent resources

The Icelandic Children’s Dictionary

Children’s books in translation

Children’s books translated from another language might put the cultural purist right off. After all, what is authentic about that? But there are huge benefits for the learner of a foreign language here, especially if you know the original work well.

The Harry Potter books have been my guilty pleasure for some years. I know the stories so well, that tackling them in any new language is a lot easier than facing completely unknown territory. It was actually in German that I read them first, having stubbornly held back from the popular wave of Pottermania. I picked up the third installment, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, from a station bookshop near Cologne. I was one of the teachers on a school trip, and the excitable chattering of the kids about heroic Harry finally piqued my curiosity.

Years later, and I’ve read Harry Potter books in several languages now, including Norwegian, Russian and Spanish. Each time, they have been an amazing boost to my overall language competence. It is also quite a fancy party piece to recite spells in a number of tongues. Thanks for that, J.K.Rowling!

You can start with much simpler stories than Harry Potter. For example, here are a couple of Icelandic primary readers that I picked up in Keflavík Airport. They are, in fact, translations of anglophone children’s books, so the stories may well be familiar to many learners. (They are also brilliant for learning the names of animals!)

Icelandic Primary Readers

Icelandic Primary Readers

So there is a peek into some of the – perhaps – more surprising items on my otherwise very grown-up language learning bookshelf. There is no shame in reverting to your childhood reading habits when learning a language. And, being generally quite affordable, books for little ‘uns will spare your pennies, too. Here’s to reliving our childhoods through languages!