A memory knot tied to a finger (image from freeimages.com). Greek passive verbs like 'remember' can be tricky to conjugate.

Greek passive verbs in the past – quick tricks

I’m all for pattern-spotting and quick heuristics for faster fluency. If something will help me communicate faster, it’s a win in my book.

That’s why I was recently chuffed to add a special new trick to my Greek arsenal. Specifically, it relates to the past tense of passive verbs. Well, I say passive, but many Greek passives correspond to active forms in English, and are quite high frequency:

θυμάμαι thimáme I remember
κοιμάμαι kimáme I sleep
φοβάμαι fováme I fear

Passive Knowledge

Passive conjugation is very different from the active in Greek. You usually come across it quite late in Modern Greek textbooks, too, so it can be an issue for many beginner to intermediate students.

Thankfully, there’s a shortcut that works for many of them. Namely, -άμαι (-áme) often becomes -ήθηκα (-íthika) in the first person past tense. Strictly speaking, that past is actually the aorist, the tense that expresses a single, completed action in the past. So we have:

θυμήθηκα thimíthika I remembered
κοιμήθηκα kimáme I slept
φοβήθηκα fováme I feared

Of course, that’s not the whole picture. But that -ηκα (-ika) fragment appears almost everywhere in other passive conjugations, like a variation on a theme. With a few extra rules, like -ζομαι > -στηκα (-zome > –stika) and -εύομαι > -έυτικα (-évomai > –éftika), you can cover even more:

ονειρεύομαι onirévome I dream ονειρεύτηκα oniréftika I dreamt
εργάζομαι ergázome I work εργάστηκα ergástika I worked

Once you have those active rules down, it’s pretty easy to extend it to other common conversational forms like ‘you …’ – for that, simply replace -a with -es:

θυμήθηκες thimíthikes you remembered
εργάστηκες ergástikes you worked
κοιμήθηκες kimíthikes you slept

As a rule of thumb, it works quite well for speeding up conversation forms. And of course, if you misapply it, or use it on a verb that doesn’t fit the pattern, the person-and-tense markers of -ηκα/-ηκες are strong enough that (hopefully) you’ll still be understood. There’s no shame in mistakes when you’re learning – especially if they don’t get in the way of communication!

I’m a big fan of learning frequent forms over whole verb tables generally – it’s a trick that just works. Hopefully, with this handful of –ηκα and –ηκες, you’ll be set to speed up your own Greek conversations too!

Polish verbs of motion - my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Slavic Kryptonite: Vanquishing Verbs of Motion

Every foreign language has its kryptonite. Sometimes it’s a common sticking point that takes most learners time to really get. Other times, it’s a personal stumbling spot for an individual learner. For me, it’s verbs of motion that are my strength sappers.

So why are they so difficult? Or, rather, why do I find them so difficult? I’m not denying the possible existence of some polyglot supermind that simply understands them at a click of the fingers (and I bow down to that mind!). But, for me, verbs of motion take time to grasp as a native speaker of a non-Slavic language. Namely, they have an extra layer of granularity compared to the comparatively simple come and go in English.

First of all, like many languages, Polish makes a distinction between going by foot and going by vehicle. Nothing strange there – for example, decidedly non-Slavic German does the same with gehen and fahren.

But in Polish (as well as many of its Slavic sibling and cousin languages – perhaps all of them, although I’m sure someone better-versed can correct me!), there is also a split between going once and going frequently or repeatedly. These can be formed from quite unsimilar roots, too; to go (on foot) in Polish is either iść or chodzić. So, we have:

  • idę do szkoły
    I go / am going to school (now)
  • chodzę do szkoły
    I go to school (regularly, as I work / study there, for example)

Brain Dump Horror

So far so good, then; just a few extra nuances and verb tables to learn. Now, I thought I had those covered, but there’s always room for revision. So, one evening this week, I decided to do a brain dump to check what I remembered. Brain dumpage, of course, is always worth doing regularly to audit your language skills. I splurged as much as I could remember onto a sheet of paper, then checked my results against a good grammar book.

It wasn’t pretty.

Polish verbs of motion - my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Polish verbs of motion – my mistake-ridden brain dump!

Present tense? No problem. Past and future? A disaster.

To be fair, I could have seen it coming. My poor iTalki Polish teacher has been subject to my unconfident fumblings for the right going word for some time already.

It was time to sort it out.

Verbs of Motion : A Strategy

Here’s the thing: knowing conjugations and grammatical intricacies off-by-heart are important for serious study of a language. But if your goal is to speak fluently, then simply having a few common forms confidently in memory is arguably more useful. In any case, some linguists, like Bybee, argue that this is how we build up and reference our native languages too – not as grammatical tables and rules, but as interconnected exemplars in the mental lexicon, ready-for-use, pre-conjugated models from exposure that we use for reproduction.

Of course, you could say that my Polish-learning brain was doing a bit of that already. If you look at my red-bepenned brain dump above, the past tense bits of to godid get right were the first, second and third person masculine forms – probably frequent parts in my own conversation.

But then, what about what I do with other people? The we bits of the paradigm clearly needed some work. And then, talking about friends and family – for that, let’s add in the they parts. Gradually, a picture emerges of what I need to add to my vocab drilling. This useful list at the ready, I then add them into Anki as individual vocab items, and they’re on the conveyor belt to stronger recall. Here are a few for illustration:

  • pójdę
    I will go (on foot, once)
  • (po)jadę
    I (will) go (by transport, once)
  • szliśmy
    we went (on foot, once)
  • jechałem
    I went (by transport, once)
  • jeździłem
    I used to go, would go (by transport, multiple times)

…and so on. Fingers crossed, talking about moving and shaking will start sorting itself out soon.

Break it down, build it up

It’s a great trick, but time-old and simple: break a bigger problem down to slowly build up your competencies. You can apply it to verb patterns in many foreign languages, not just Polish, as well as any other aspect that seems too multifaceted and complicated to grasp all in one fell swoop.

The next time I do a brain dump of Polish verbs of motion, I hope I’ll get a few more right. And if I do, I expect it will have more to do with working on those key forms, rather than developing a photographic memory of entire verb tables.

Greek flag. The Flag of Greece. Photo by Michael Faes, FreeImages.com

Greek Rules Rule! Understanding Adjective Pairs

Finding fluency in a foreign language is often a question of spotting heuristics – patterns, tricks and rules of thumb that help map out the shape of the language in your mind. They can help you mark the boundaries that most often lead to mix-ups and common ‘gotcha’ errors as a non-native speaker. Recently, I spied one of these in Greek, and it’s already helping me to avoid errors.

The tricky feature in question is the existence of Greek adjectives derived from the same root, but with subtly different meanings. They come in pairs ending in -ικός and -μένος, and you can get a feel for the pattern in the following examples:

κουραστικός tiring κουρασμένος tired
αγχωτικός stressful αγχωμένος stressed
ενοχλητικός annoying ενοχλημένος annoyed

For a while, I would tend to unthinkingly say one when I meant the other. It led to some classic Greek comedy moments: “I’m annoying” instead of “I’m annoyed” and such like!

Greek Columns

But by taking a moment to analyse how meaning matches up with form in those two columns, the rule bubbles to the surface. Grammatically speaking, the second of each pair here are passive past participles. They express the state a person is in when X has been done to them. In these cases, that equates to made tired, made anxious, made annoyed. Now, more often than not, these marry up with past participles in English (like tired or annoyed). In Greek, it’s -μένος that indicates that in the adjectival form.

By contrast, the first column adjectives relate more to the inherent properties of the person, thing or situation. That is, the potential effect on something else – the ability to cause to be tired, anxious or annoyed. English tends to form these in a variety of ways: present participles of active verbs like tiring or annoying, suffix formations like stressful, or often, clumsier adjectival / participial phrases like anxiety-inducing. However, in Greek, you’ll often get a simple -ικός, turning an active verbal root into an adjective.

So, it all boils down to one easy rule in Greek. Talking about how it caused you to feel? Then it’s -μένος. Talking about what it does to you? Then it will be the –ικός part of the equation.

It’s a neat example, and a good illustration of how taking the time to pattern-spot can sort out some real zingers in your language learning head. Of course, we all do this automatically and below the level of our awareness most of the time. But with those sticky mistakes, it never hurts to join up the dots out loud!

Three books for learning Scottish Gaelic

From My Bookshelf : Gaelic Books You Might Have Missed

I’m an absolute hound for language learning books. Not least when I have a new project – the excitement of a new language is the perfect catalyst for a bookshop raid. And since starting Gaelic a couple of years ago, my little reference library has blossomed.

But it’s not the Teach Yourself and Colloquial course books that spark the real excitement (however wonderful they are, too). Rather, it’s the little gems that are a bit harder to find, the titles you only come across in either really well-stocked shops, or little specialist ones. Often they hail from much smaller publishing houses, too, so have an individuality and authentic voice all of their own.

Here are three of my favourite ‘little finds’ from my Gaelic bookshelf!

A Gaelic Alphabet (George McLennon)

When I started Gaelic, I was – like many – bamboozled by the spelling. With the benefit of a good teacher and lots of hindsight, that system seems completely logical now – perhaps much more so than its quirky English counterpart! But back at the beginning, all that talk of broad and slender consonants, and caol ri caol ‘s leathann ri leathann was utterly alien.

I came across this book long after it had finally clicked, but I’d have loved to find it at the start. McLennon systematically works through all the letters of the Gaelic alphabet, giving copious examples of how words containing them sound. There are lots of nods to the Gaelic world too, making it a true treasure if you’re just starting out on your journey.

Gaelic Verbs Systemised and Simplified (Colin Mark)

I must admit, I have a thing for verbs. When starting a new language, I always go straight for them, eager to find out how to express past, present and future. Maybe it’s the storyteller in me.

Gaelic verbs, like the spelling, might seem to operate in quite an unfamiliar way for the new learner, especially those coming from SVO languages like French, German or Spanish. This book breaks it all down, explaining the quirks from dependent forms to verbal nouns. It gave me the knowledge and confidence to create Scottish Verb Blitz, an app that I still practise with today.

Gràmar na Gàidhlig (Michel Byrne)

I’ve flagged the excellent Gràmar na Gàidhlig before in my pick of post-Duolingo resources, but it bears mentioning again as a golden Gaelic pick. Translated for English-speaking learners from a highly successful purely Gaelic version, it’s a clear and accessible reference and learning guide if you like exploring the nuts and bolts.

It is getting harder to source now, although I’ve seen copies here and there in the second-hand bookshops of Edinburgh, and you can also still buy it direct from the publisher here.

Honourable Mentions

This trio is perhaps at the forefront of my mind right now, as I’ve found myself using them a bit more often lately. But there are so many other perhaps lesser-known Gaelic resources out there, some still in print, others available second-hand.  I can’t leave out Gaelic without Groans, for instance, which is simply from a whole other world, and a cute and quirky joy to read. Then there’s An leabhar mòr (the great book), a more recent compendium of illustrated verse in the language. 

It’s a good sign of continued, thriving interest in learning the language, of course – as well as testimony to the treasure of books, large and small. If you give them a go, I hope you love these titles as much as I do.

A colourful disco. Expressing what goes on at the disco is made all the easier by aspect. Image from freeimages.com

A Handy Aspect : Expressing Continuity and Completeness the Neat Way

I’ve been doubling down on Greek and Polish lately. And it struck me that they have similar tactics for expressing something we might not be overtly familiar with in English: aspect.

Aspect refers to how an action plays out over time. Typically, that includes notions of whether it was continuous, or complete / finished (telic). In grammatical terms, the opposition is between imperfective (the ongoing sort of action) and perfective (the completed one). It’s something we express in English, but typically we employ a bunch of strategies (and often several words) for it:

  • I was eating (continuous, no end point)
  • You have eaten (a complete action – the eating started and finished)
  • She ate it up (ie., she ate all of it – it’s gone now!)

So far so good; it’s nothing we’re not used to. After all, English does like its wordy, compound verb constructions.

An Intriguing Aspect

On the other hand, Greek and Polish – two languages you might not normally lump together – actually deal with this type of accent extremely similarly and succinctly. Firstly, Polish (and other Slavic) verbs come in aspectual pairs, each one expressing one end of that continuous-complete continuum:

  • 🇵🇱 robić (to do – imperfective, continuous, repeated, habitual etc.)
  • 🇵🇱 zrobić (to do – perfective, completed action, started-then-finished etc.)

Likewise, Greek has a system of alternating verb roots to express the same:

  • 🇬🇷 γράγω (ghráfo, write – root stem, used for imperfective forms)
  • 🇬🇷 γράψω (ghrápso, write – dependent stem, used for perfective forms)

As unfamiliar as the system of aspect-within-the-verb can seem at first, when you get used to it, it turns out to be a very economical and elegant way to narrate action. Just a tiny tweak alters the framing of your story:

  • 🇬🇷 έγραφα ένα γράμμα (éghrafa éna ghrámma: I was writing a letter – and it wasn’t finished before whatever happened next happened!)
  • 🇬🇷 έγραψα ένα γράμμα (éghrapsa éna ghrámma: I wrote, and finished, a letter)
  • 🇵🇱 robiłem moje zdanie domowe (I was doing my homework – but didn’t necessarily complete it)
  • 🇵🇱 zrobiłem moje zdanie domowe (I did my homework – and it’s complete!)

Neat, right?

Aspectual Automation

When first getting to grips with aspect in a new language that makes it explicit, you have to do a quick ‘mental check’ before you narrate events. What happened? Did it finish? Did it carry on? Was it interrupted? It’s the kind of thing that native speakers do intuitively. But, after a while, you start to do that aspect calculation automatically, too.

Luckily, if you also study Romance languages, you have a head start. In Spanish, for example, the difference between the imperfect and the preterite is one of aspect:

  • 🇪🇸 escribía una carta (I was writing a letter)
  • 🇪🇸 escribí una carta (I wrote a letter)

But it’s the Germanic languages, like English, which have tended to lose their in-verb markers of aspect. English has ended up with just two synthetic (inflected, single word) tenses, present and past; for all the other fancy, nuanced stuff, we need to fall back on our bunch of words techniques.

Aspect can be a tricky thing to get your head round if you haven’t grown up with the concept overtly in your first language. But it’s a fun feature to master, especially for telling stories in your target language(s)!

An Icelandic puffin. Image from freeimages.com

The Icelandic Struggle : An Adventure in Weak and Strong Adjective Endings

The struggle is real. Icelandic adjective endings can be a real pain.

Granted, declining adjectives is not an exclusively Icelandic trial. Adjectives that decline for gender, number – and, where applicable, case – crop up in many languages. French, Italian, Russian and Spanish learners will have to tackle their variable nature at some point.

But strongly declined Germanic languages – I’m looking at you, German and Icelandic – add a very special complication to the mix:

There are two sets of adjective endings when used attributively in noun phrases like “good food” or “the brown dog”: strong and weak.

So why two sets? Well, the strong set is used when there is no other determiner with the noun, like the. These strong declensions are more marked according to gender, number and case. Conversely, the weak set comes into play when a word like the or this is present in the noun phrase. These are more generalised and show less variation than the strong set. Compare the German:

Strong gutes Essen good food
Weak das gute Essen the good food

That -s on the strong version of that adjective? It is the typical neuter nominative -s ending. In the weak version, the article das already shows that, so the adjective no longer needs to.

I always remember the way my A-level German teacher, Mr Wenham, put it. The weak kind is excused from having to reflect the full details about gender, number and case, since the article does all the hard work. A nice explanation from a very nice teacher (you always remember the good ones!).

The Icelandic struggle

The split between weak and strong adjective declensions is something that comes naturally in German now. But I did start learning German when I was just eleven, so that’s over thirty years to get my head around it. (Needless to say, it only really all clicked into place when I started reading more extensively in the language in my twenties.)

On the other hand, Icelandic has been another story. The system itself works in exactly the same way as German, giving us, for example:

Strong góður matur good food
Weak góði maturinn the good food

But for some reason or other, I have trouble with the weak endings in particular. You might expect the opposite, since strong endings are the ones that display all the variation, being excused from carrying all the grammatical markers. But that’s probably why they do stick – they much more obviously fit the specific gender/number/case mix.

Conversely, the weak endings have taken a long time to stick. They seem more abstract, lacking a real hook to memorise each particular flavour and combination.

Here is the full set of them, taken from the excellent Litli málfræðingurinn, the free grammar e-book:

Weak adjective declension in Icelandic.

Weak adjective declension in Icelandic (taken from Litli málfræðingurinn).

Now, as much as I love a good grammatical declension table, this must look boggling to anyone at first glance. So how to break it down and get a grip on each use case?

Pattern spotting

Our first instinct with grammar tables is usually to search for patterns. Instantly, a couple leap out here. The plural weak endings are all -u, for example. Likewise, all the neuter singular ones are -a, which is also helpful. And we can simplify that larger table by just looking at the top section, since the other two are just illustrating different classes of adjective – the endings are the same. That gives us something like this, colour-coded to show common patterns:

Spotting patterns in Icelandic weak adjective endings.

Spotting patterns in Icelandic weak adjective endings.

But as handy as this is, spotting abstract patterns is just that – learning on an abstract level. Great for writing, when you have time to consult your visual memory. Less snappy for speaking. After all, native speakers hardly look up tables of endings in their minds when speaking fluently, so this might not be the best approach for long-term foreign language fluency. As a grammar geek, learning tables by rote has its appeal, but is not always the best route to talking.

Thankfully, there is something even more powerful than abstract pattern spotting. It is the power of learning ready-declined, bite-sized model noun phrases.

Ready-made chunks

Theories of first language acquisition generally focus on infants consuming models of intelligible input. Taking this as a starting point, the temptation might be to start inventing model noun phrases to memorise, like “the big dog”, “the red car” and so on.

This can be helpful, but there is an even better way – to seek out examples from real-life, which will have greater salience, and are therefore more likely to settle swiftly in long-term memory.

We can find these real-world mental anchors all over the place when we move around in the target language world, physically or virtually. Rich sources include place names – famous and everyday – as well as book and film titles. Some of of my mnemonics are cafés and restaurants from previous trips to Iceland, for example. Here are a few:

But wait – no feminine examples? I must admit that I struggled to find any very well-known ones. (There must be some – please share in the comments if you know any!) So what then?

Desperately seeking adjectives

If you flounder when seeking out famous or prêt-à-porter declined snippets, all is not lost. Simply use your grammar and/or teacher to make up your own. But be mindful about it: use phrases that are relevant to your target language world or ambitions. They will be much easier to remember if they relate to your world.

Let’s fill out those feminine noun gaps, then. Enjoy chatting politics? Learn “the best policy” (besta stefnan) as  your model. Music buff? Try “the Icelandic singer” (íslenska söngkonan).

It can also be fun to enlist well-known song titles or lyrics in the fight to memorise endings. Here are a couple you might recognise:

  • Stærsta ástin (The Greatest Love)
  • Græna hurðin (The Green Door)

Pivoting to other cases

So far, so good. But these are all in the nominative case. The next step is to extend these examples to all the other cases to provide a complete set of examples. For instance, pop the preposition frá before them to give you a model for the dative case:

  • frá Hvíta húsinu (from the White House)

Or for the genitive, learn the phrase with vegna (because of):

  • vegna stærstu ástarinnar (because of the greatest love)

For sure, you will have to come up with a fair few examples to work through the full set of endings. But you can approach this gradually, slowly but surely expanding your bank of useful chunks.

Worth the slog

The phrase-model technique is similar to that particular school of Anki use that recommends that we forget individual words, but always learn sentences (see the link for an example of the age-old debate). The argument goes that learning phrases, you have a ready-to-use bank of flowing language, rather than a mental dictionary that still needs a lot of conjugational work after the point of look-up. In fact, the Icelandic noun phrase approach here is a nice bridge between the two – learning discrete chunks of pre-declined model noun phrases that can slot into your speech.

If you are learning Icelandic, I hope these tricks help those endings to stick. And if not, you can take a similar approach to get a grip on your particular language’s twists and turns. Or maybe, just maybe, it might even entice you to dip your toe into Icelandic, too. It is worth the slog!

Of course, the biggest lesson for me in all this is: if you really want to learn those endings, then write a blog article about them!

A spreadsheet containing German verb information.

Anki custom note types for complex morphology flashcards

If you use Anki, have you ever felt like the the out-of-the-box templates are a little basic?

The default card has just two fields for back and front. Of course, this is instantly relevant for simple vocabulary learning. You can begin adding your target-translation word pairs in straight away. It is intuitive and allows newcomers to get started straight away. Simplicity can be great!

However, as Anki works further and further into your language learning routine, that simple A-B card type can feel lacking. In particular, one single input box can seem a squash for all the extra information you learn alongside the dictionary form of your vocabulary.

Overloaded cards

A good example to illustrate this is the topic of irregular verbs. For example, take the French verb être (to be). It isn’t that useful to have a card that only lists the information “to be = être”. As a learner, you will surely want to add more detail, such as the present tense.

Now, using only the default card type, there are ways to include this detail. You might choose to add it in brackets after the infinitive, like “to be = être (je suis, tu es, il/elle est, nous sommes, vous êtes, ils/elles sont)”. But the problem is becoming obvious – your cards begin to look overloaded and messy.

Adding more info to basic Anki cards soon becomes messy.

Adding more info to basic Anki cards soon becomes messy.

There is a quick fix. When you create your vocab items, you can switch to inputting in HTML. Using HTML tags, you can then add line breaks and other formatting. With a bit of fiddling around, it is possible to separate out that info and at least make it more readable.

Formatting busy entries using HTML in Anki

Formatting busy entries using HTML in Anki

The result of HTML formatting an Anki text input

But still, all that information is jammed into a small input box. What happens when you want to make them more comprehensive, adding other tenses and so on? They will begin to look unwieldy.

And adding all that formatting is hardly economical with your valuable time. It would be better if the formatting were somehow automatically connected to the data itself, rather than completely manual.

Not only that, but there is also a good pedagogical reason for not cramming all that information into one space. During testing, all the material in that input box is bundled together as the answer. That is now a lot of material bound to single English prompt “to be”.

If only there were some way to separate it all out!

Anki custom card types

Well, a huge strength of Anki is how customisable and extensible it is. True, its advanced functionality might be well-hidden under a very plain interface, but you have a great deal of room to adapt and extend its basic workings.

It is Anki’s ability to create custom note types that will help us solve this problem. Custom note types allow you to define the fields for your cards. And they can be as comprehensive as you like, reflecting all the separate morphological parts of each vocabulary item.

It started with a list…

First things first: if you are creating word lists with very detailed, systematic additional info, Anki is probably not be the best place to collate it initially. Spreadsheet programs like Excel, Numbers or Google Sheets are much better geared up to this kind of thing. The format you need to save in is CSV (comma separated values), and all mainstream spreadsheet programs should give this option when saving or exporting.

Simply start adding your items, row by row. Use a column for each piece of information you want to keep separate. There is no need to use column headings. In the German verbs example below, there is a column for the infinitive, English translation, and then each of the six parts of the present tense.

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Once you are happy with the number of items, you are ready to import it into Anki. And to make a fitting home for your new words, we create a new custom note type matching the fields in your spreadsheet list.

A wee note before we start: you need to be using the desktop program for this, as it is not possible in the mobile app. Before you do so, be sure to sync on all your devices, then sync on the desktop program. This is because the changes we make on the desktop client will require a full resync with Anki, and you don’t want to lose any progress from your devices. Also, to be safe, always back up your Anki decks before performing any major surgery on your precious cards!

Creating a new note type

In Anki, head to Tools > Manage Note Types. Once in the there, click Add, then Add: Basic and OK to select a template to base our new type on. We will use the basic one here, but you can experiment with more complicated types later on, if it takes your fancy!

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Here, you add the fields that correspond to each column of information in your vocabulary spreadsheet. In the example below, I have also renamed the first two fields to reflect the verb-based example material more appropriately.

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Now your data has a custom-made container to call home, you are ready to import it. Head to File > Import in your desktop app, and find the CSV file you saved / exported from the spreadsheet.

In the Type field, select the custom note type you just created. Then, select a deck to import it into (you might want to create a brand new one for this first).

Magically, Anki matches up the columns in your spreadsheet to the fields in your custom note type, as indicated in the lower half of that window. You can change how they marry up, but you shouldn’t have to as long as the number of spreadsheet columns and note fields tallies, and the order of them is the same.

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

That’s it! Anki has taken charge of your data, and will now drip-feed it to you daily along with your other cards.

But hold on – something isn’t quite right. None of the new, extra fields show in study mode. Egads! Not to worry – there is just one last step.

Styling your cards

The problem is that the basic type, which we used as a template, only shows the first two fields by default. That’s because it is based on a simple vocab flashcard with a front and back, and just two corresponding pieces of information. We need to style our new card type manually and add in those extra fields.

In the desktop Anki app, open up the Browse window. In the left-hand list of your Anki assets – decks, cards and so on – find the entry for your new note type. Click on it and you should see all your imported items on the right-hand side.

Locating your imported vocabulary via note type in the Anki Browse window

Locating your imported vocabulary via note type in the Anki Browse window

With any of those entries highlighted, you should see a button labelled Cards underneath. Clicking that opens up the card styling window, where you can add in placeholders for those missing items.

On the left, Anki gives you three editing panes. Bear in mind that this window represents a card with two ‘sides’. The first pane represents the front side of each vocab card. Then, there is a window you can use to add styling to both sides. Beneath that is a pane for the flip side. On the right is a preview of how both sides look.

On first opening this view, you will just see the first two fields (in the example below, Infinitive and Translation). Crucially, however, note that they are enclosed in {{double curly braces}}. This is Anki shorthand for a field when creating card templates.

With this knowledge, you are equipped to add in your extra fields. In our verbs example, the extra fields correspond to parts of the verb paradigm. Therefore, the field 1ps (first person singular) from the note type becomes {{1ps}} wherever it should appear on the card in study mode.

You can embed them within basic HTML, too, using divs, headings, paragraphs, line breaks and anything else to make them clear.

Importing complex vocab items into Anki via CSV file

Isn’t that better? Formatted cleanly, with styling applied automatically to every new vocabulary note of that type.

Top of the Anki class

Here’s where this technique can be really powerful. Now your information is separated, you can add in some of Anki’s other testing features to your card templates. If, for instance, you add test: after the first pair of curly brackets, that field becomes a type-in box in study mode.

You can put in as many of these as you want. In our verbs example, you could use type-in boxes to test the whole paradigm, like this:

Building more comprehensive tests using your Anki custom note types

Building more comprehensive tests using your Anki custom note types

Isn’t that a huge improvement on the original, basic A-B flip card? You have turned Anki into a real grammar testing machine. Take a look at the Anki manual for further tips and tricks about styling your cards in this way.

Keep playing

For sure, there is a lot more to this technique than the outline above. Our verbs example uses just a simple, one-sided card as a template, but there are many more options. As with all things Anki, it is well worth playing with the tools available to see what is possible.

After all, personalising your learning is taking charge of it. Have fun with your customisation!

An owl. Probably not the Duolingo one, but I'm sure they're friends. (Image from freeimages.com)

Building linguistic muscle memory with Duolingo

I achieved not quite a lifelong dream this week. Let’s call it a months-long dream. I finally reached level 25 in German on Duolingo!

When the moment of glory came, it was more with a fizzle than with fireworks. As the XP points ticked over, the ‘points to next’ level disappeared, a simple XP counter in its place. I won’t pretend I wasn’t quite chuffed secretly, though.

But hang on! Can’t I already speak German? As my strongest foreign language, what was I doing thrashing through levels and levels of a beginner to intermediate course? Of course, besides the gamified pride of having that shiny 25 next to the language on my Duolingo profile.

Well, fluency is never a done deal. Even our strongest languages need maintenance work to keep them in shape. And what started as a curious exploration of Duolingo’s German course showed me how useful it can be to use lower-level learner drill tools to reinforce your skills as a fluent speaker. Convinced of the benefits, I’m now using it to blitz Norwegian, another of my more confident languages.

So why is Duolingo so useful?

A Duolingo leaderboard

A Duolingo leaderboard

Muscle memory

Muscle memory, or motor learning, is the process by which certain skills become automatic and unthinking through repetition. You know the kind of thing: playing scales on a piano, using a computer keyboard, operating the controls of a car. They are tasks that we perform so often that they just happen on some level below consciousness.

Proficient language use has a component of this, too. As we become more and more familiar with the patterns of a language, we form grammatically sound phrases ever more automatically. After years of learning French, German or Spanish, you no longer have to think about gendered articles, for example. At some point you just get it.

The key routes to achieving this language ‘muscle memory’ are exposure and repetition. And Duolingo exercises have that by the truckload. That green owl has prepared hundreds and hundreds of sentences, each selected as an example of idiomatic, grammatically correct usage.

Automating those little details

The upshot of this is that you can work on automating those annoying little details that always trip you up, even in your strong languages. For example,  learning phrases to express date and time are a pet hate of mine as a learner. When speaking quickly, I am still tempted to use the equivalent of the English preposition, which is often not the same in the target language.

Take Norwegian as an example. To express duration where English uses ‘for’, the language uses i (in), such as ‘i fem uker’ (for five weeks). Even after years of working on my Norwegian, it can be hard to stifle that anglophone twitch to use ‘for’ instead of ‘i’.

Cue Duolingo’s Time topic. After bashing out exercise after exercise containing solid Norwegian time phrases, they are starting to come more naturally now. Bad habits start to break down; the brain is getting trained.

It is not just the brain, either. After typing thousands of characters of target language, the fingers start to instinctively know how to form the special characters on the keyboard. No more clumsy fiddling for å, ø or any of their kin!

Duolingo and the lost details

Fluency is not the summit of a perfectly formed mountain. It is easy to sit proudly atop your language mastery and assume that you simply have it covered. Especially the basics.

Hold your horses! Duolingo surprised me by throwing up some shockers that I had forgotten over the years. The gender of Euro and Cent in German (both der, by the way). The correct word for employ or hire (einstellen, not anstellen as I’d been assuming for years). They’re little things, and they would barely impede comprehension. But those lost details make the difference between sounding like a learner and sounding like someone who has really got a grip on the language.

Duolingo has even being training the sloppiness out of my language habits. Learning Norwegian as a German speaker can be incredibly handy, since the languages are fairly close. However, assuming similarity can result in mistakes. Using Duolingo on both of them has thrown up some surprising discrepancies in the gender of cognates between the two languages. More often than not, these relate to the convention around how words from classical languages, like Greek and Latin, are absorbed into the language. Here are a few:

🇳🇴 🇩🇪
cinema kinoen masculine das Kino neuter
ice isen masculine das Eis neuter
keyboard tastaturet neuter die Tastatur feminine
library biblioteket neuter die Bibliothek feminine
mind sinnet neuter der Sinn masculine
radio radioen masculine das Radio neuter
sugar sukkeret neuter der Zucker masculine

Where I would previously assume the Norwegian gender was identical to the German, I now know better. Duolingo exercises gave me a systematic arena to find that out. Without it, it might have taken me an age to come across them by chance. No more blindly relying on German for my Norwegian details!

Need for speed…

Many of Duolingo’s activities are translation-based. And a key benefit of this for already proficient linguists is the development of lightning-speed gist translation.

Understanding gist, or the general essence, of a sentence quickly is a key skill for operating seamlessly in a foreign language. Life moves quickly, and we must often act swiftly to keep pace. By adding a timed element to these exercises in its random test feature, Duolingo encourages learners to understand quickly. And true enough, after some time using the platform, you will find yourself getting faster and faster on the keyboard.

Challenge yourself to a few random quizzes (via the dumbbell icon in the app). See how quickly you can translate via a glance at the native language prompt or single listen to the spoken phrase, and work on extending that gist brain. Dictation exercises are also excellent for training you ear to catch things quickly, especially in languages with elision, where words can seem to blur into one another.

Interestingly, translation drilling is a feature of the platform that may well be more useful to language maintainers than learners. Although mass sentence approaches can be incredibly useful for increasing your exposure, pure translation is probably not most efficient sole learning method. The threshold of conversational fluency might be just the right time to jump into Duolingo’s testing tool.

…but recognising road bumps

Travelling the same paths over and over again is a good opportunity to spot where there are potholes. And through regular muscle memory training on Duolingo, you soon find out what your own weaknesses are.

A major lesson for me relates to what psychologist Daniel Kahnemann has called fast and slow thinking. These relate to the two tracks of thought processing humans are hypothesised to have. The first is a snappy, gut-instinct decision making brain based on heuristics or patterns. Its complement is a more careful, deliberating one.

When you start speed translating for gist training, you may be tempted to jump the gun and answer too quickly at first. Perhaps a similar, but slightly different sentence appeared on the screen two minutes ago. Your fast-thinking, pattern-spotting brain might catch only the similar part, remember the answer to the previous sentence, and enter that instead of checking the whole thing. At first, this would happen frequently with me – oops.

With plenty of practice, though, you can train your brain to engage its more deliberated mode whilst still maintaining speed. In essence, it is a lesson in “don’t assume anything”, and a good counterbalance to the speed translation kick.

Learning is a journey, not an outcome

It is tempting to see learning as something with an endpoint. But a commitment to a language involves regular maintenance and audits, which can be hard to put into play if you live outside your target countries.

There may be a hint of polyglot snobbery around using beginner to intermediate tools like Duolingo. But the opportunity these offer for stocktaking and strengthening existing pathways is too good to miss. And sometimes, going back to basics can just be fun, especially when it is gamified!

Already have a strong language amongst the Duolingo courses? Join the XP chase, schedule a daily drill, and see what levelling up can do for you.

Modal verbs can lend colour to your speech (image from freeimages.com)

À la modal : how these little nuancing verbs can fix your fluency

I have a nerdish love of verbs. For me, it’s where it all comes together in language. They are sentence glue. Conjugate them, and you can hang the rest of the sentence from them like on the branches of a tree. But there is a small group of verbs that always make me feel more expressive and fluent in a foreign language. They are the modal verbs.

You have likely already come across them in your studies. In English, they are words like canmustshould and so on. They are often irregular, and very high-frequency in the languages they belong to.

So why are they such a boost to fluency?

À la modal verbs

The magic of modals is that they nuance what you say. They decorate your sentence tree with colourful subtexts. Technically speaking, they layer your speech with modality – the ability to express situations which may not be real.

Concretely, modals are verbs that imply intention, possibility, obligation and probability. These are all complex nuances, but very quick and easy to apply succinctly with modals. And they fix a common frustration of beginners: boring conversation syndrome.

It is a common beginner language learner experience to feel limited by straightforward, indicative tenses. You quickly frustrate yourself in speaking if all you can do is make statements of fact. I am a studentI went to a concertwe have a dog, we travelled to Spain. Hmm – boring!

Modal verbs change that up. They colour the story. Suddenly, I could be a studentI wanted to go to a concertwe should have a dogwe might go to Spain. Beyond bare statements of fact, you are now expressing hopes, wishes, dreams, judgements, assessments and more. From dull zero to language learning hero through the addition of just a few words.

Letting you off lightly

Modal verbs can actually make your language easier to speak, as well. Since they usually connect to the bare infinitive – or most basic form – of another verb, they give you a wee respite from conjugating it.

For example, let’s take the Spanish verb phrase:

ir al colegio (to go to school)

Ir is a notoriously irregular verb. If you are fumbling for its past form when trying to say I went to school, then there is a simpler way: modal verbs and constructions. If you have memorised the simple past of ‘had to’ in Spanish, it becomes easy:

tuve que ir al colegio (I had to go to school)

That tuve que construction just saved you if you had forgotten the form fui (I went). Fair enough, the meaning is subtly different – you are expressing obligation here instead. But it is close enough to express the original indicative sense that you went to school too. A neat trick.

The great thing with this tactic is that just learning a couple of conjugated forms of modal verbs can go a long way. You need only learn a few key forms at first. Perhaps the first person present and past forms (I mustI had toI canI could and so on) are the most immediately useful for conversation. Then, simply clip on whole verb phrases to the end – no conjugation required. An instance fluency boost!

To continue the metaphor of the verb as the trunk of a tree, modal verbs are big, sturdy branches that can comfortably take the weight of even more verbs.

More bang for your buck

Let’s face it – some words are more useful than others.

For a start, modal verbs are common, high-frequency words that you will regularly come across. A good benchmark is where a word appears on a frequency list of words in the target language. Anything in the top hundred suggests that you will be exposed to the word all the time. Spanish puede (can) features in its top sixty, as does its French counterpart peut and German kann.

But something makes them even more useful that just being frequent. They are often semantically overloaded, too, meaning that they have multiple meanings depending on context.

Just take must in English. It can be a bare indicator of obligation, as in we must go. But it can also express the speaker’s assessment of high probability, as in they must be the new students. Many languages mirror this usage, such as the Spanish debe de estar cansado (he must be tired).

Consulting any good reference on your target language should throw up scores of examples. This Wiktionary page on the Spanish deber (must) gives a good overview of that word, for instance. After checking out constructions there, you can then hunt down sample sentences containing them on a service like Tatoeba.

Overloaded words are excellent news for squeezing lots of language out of a little learning. You get even greater mileage than normal out of each modal verb mastered.

Modal Verbs : fast-tracking fluency

Convinced by these little nuancing fluency helpers? The facts speak for themselves. Modal verbs are high frequency words. There are just a few to learn. They have dense, multiple meanings. And they make speaking easier when you are still grappling with general verb conjugation. They are the perfect fodder for a bit of language hacking towards fast fluency.

Could it be magic? It just might. Say yes we can and enjoy pumping up your fluency with modal verbs!

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.