Icelandic Noun Master - an app with an appreciative audience.

Do It For An Audience

It’s nice to be appreciated. And sometimes, an appreciative audience can be just the boost you need to get back into gear.

I received some lovely feedback this week about an app I’d almost completely forgotten about. It all related to a very active Icelandic phase I was going through a couple of years back. At the time, I was enjoying a particularly fierce battle with noun declensions, but suffering from a dearth of resources to help (fellow Icelandic learners will relate).

There’s a good piece of advice in this situation. If there’s no help forthcoming, help yourself.

To get a handle on those noun tables, I put together a quick ‘n’ simple app to drill those declensions. I used Java and Android Studio (it’s my job, after all), but there was no prerequisite level of tech – it’s something that could just as easily take life in a site like Quizlet or Educandy.

The idea was basic: a set of multiple choice activities to drill Icelandic noun endings, separately by gender, or altogether. It just needed a bit of time to put together questions and prompts from the grammar guides I had available to me. And the result? A really effective five-minutes-a-day app for getting those endings into memory.

The added benefit of putting it together as a mobile app was that it was ready-bundled to share on to others. I released it as Icelandic Noun Master on Google Play as a free app, and watched the downloads slowly clock up. It’s still there, quietly helping anyone who needs it.

Learning by Making

DIY resource production – for yourself and for others – is a language learning strategy that can yield surprisingly positive results. For a start, resource creation gets you thinking deeply about your learning material, and how to transform it into a clearer, easily testable format. To make questions from it, you have to step away, look at it from a different angle, turn it inside out, think about it in ways that perhaps weren’t obvious on first glance. It’s like turning a jigsaw puzzle upside-down for a fresh perspective, and suddenly spotting where a piece goes. That see it in a different way benefit, incidentally, is why teaching to learn is likewise such a good strategy.

But there’s another intended side-effect, an almost hypnotically effective one. In the creation of resources, you can drift into an almost automaton-style collating of material, sourcing and listing sample sentences, questions or tabular data. It’s a kind of flow state that encourages foreign language material to bed itself in almost by a process of osmosis. Even if it doesn’t quite become active knowledge in one fell swoop, it lays the ground for it to become so later.

Keep ’em Coming

So, in these ways (and probably many more), an appreciative audience can be a useful tool for a language learner. And of course, there’s also that feeling that what you’re doing has impact and usefulness – and that can work wonders for your motivation. In any case, it’s got me thinking that there’s a bit of life left in the trusty old Icelandic Noun Master yet. I’ll be returning to it now, to spruce it up, and revise my own Icelandic. And maybe I’ll even add an iOS version to the mix, too.

Have to keep that audience happy!

A Short and Easy Modern Greek Grammar (Gardner 1892). Dense, but thorough descriptions!

Feeling Dense When It Don’t Make Sense

When I first started learning Greek many years ago, as a very inexperienced polyglot-in-the-making, I remember trying to get to grips with an interesting quirk of pronunciation – and feeling a little dense when it didn’t make sense at first.

It was all about stress placement. Specifically, something a bit funny can happen in Greek when a little word like μου (mou – my) follows a polysyllabic word. The longer word gets an extra stress accent – very strange considering the fact that Greek words usually only have a single stressed syllable.

το διαμέρισμα (to diamérisma – the flat)
το διαμέρισμά μου (to diamérismá mou – my flat)

I remember reading this in some dusty old grammar I got from the library, and not quite getting it. I made a mental note that the stress can sometimes change under certain circumstances, and left it at that, feeling ever so slightly befuddled (but undeterred!).

With time, of course, I came across lots of examples of this happening in Greek texts and speech. And with that exposure, my hit-and-miss attempts at reproducing it, and my eventual improvement, came a kind of instinct for where it takes place.

Getting Technical

Wind forward a good twenty years, and I’m leafing through a Modern Greek grammar primer from 1892 (as you do). A Short and Easy Modern Greek Grammar was an introductory text originally penned by German Karl Wied, and released in a translation by Mary Gardner in 1892. As it’s such an old, copyright-expired book, it’s quite easy to get a PDF scan of it, such as this 1910 edition at the Internet Archive.

I love these texts for the insight they give into how the target language itself has changed in recent years. But they also offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of foreign language education. How things have changed in a hundred-and-twenty years! But then again, how they stay the same. The technical descriptions aren’t vastly different from the thorough explanations you’ll find in a Routledge Comprehensive Grammar. Well, maybe a little extra Victorian bombast, but the format has remained surprisingly static over a century.

Page from a Short and Easy Modern Greek Grammar (Gardner 1892). Dense, but thorough descriptions!

A Short and Easy Modern Greek Grammar (Gardner, after Wied, 1892)

Right there, on page eight, is that accent phenomenon I struggled with as a youth. The description is given in quite traditionalist, grammatical language. It explains that the stress-jumping occurs with enclitics, snippets of words so short that they lack an accent of their own and almost merge into the preceding word.

It’s a technically accurate and comprehensive explanation. But I probably wouldn’t have had a clue if I’d read it there first!

A Time and a Place

There are two points to make here. First, don’t be fazed if you struggle to get difficult grammatical points in traditional texts. With enough exposure to real language, you’ll develop your own instinct for these intricacies. There’s a time and a place for comprehensive, formal grammars, and it’s probably not at the very start of your journey (as much as I love to geek out with hundred-year-old tomes).

Secondly, it’s not that such resources are not useful at all. It’s just that they’re perhaps better used when you have a bit of a handle on the language already, and you are ready for the why as well as the how. It’s also a nice reminder that a little time and experience can make a huge difference with language learning.

What first seemed dense and inaccessible can make complete sense when you revisit it with some street-learned smarts.

Map pins - great for pinpointing a location, just like prepositions of place! Image from freeimages.com

Location Location : Prepositions of Place Between Languages

Prepositions can be tricky, not least those relating to location. They don’t always align between languages, so they are a common source of language learning errors. But getting them right like a master is all down to how we think about space and place in the world.

One of the biggest differences between languages relates to being within an enclosed area or on a flat, open space. It might sound like a very specific category distinction for brains to carve out, especially as we give it no thought in our native languages. But brains do carve physical space up like this, and exactly what counts as each can differ from language to language.

Approximate Location…

Take the word station, for example. In English, it’s neither here nor there. You tend to be at the station, at being as fairly vague preposition attaching some entity generally to a location. Likewise, in French, you’re à la gare, and in German, you’ll be am Bahnhof, each language using its personal flavour of at. However, in Polish, you’ll literally be on (top of) the stationna dworcu. That’s because, for Polish speakers, the station is a large, flat, open space. Whatever historical and cultural reasons led to that distinction – different styles of station buildings or layout or whatever – might now be lost, but they’re felt still in those prepositions.

Sometimes, the deciding factor is which part of the location the speaker has in mind. In English, we similarly say at university, specifying very generally with at again. German and French follow once more with an der Uni(versität) and à l’unversité. But in Polish, you’re na uniwersytecie, literally on the university. In Polish, it’s the quad-like nature of the lawned university courtyard that is the defining concept; in English, French, and German, it’s perhaps more about the buildings, or even just that general dot on the city map.

Diverging Laylines

So far, it seems like English, French and German form a bit of a group here, behaving in the same way. But it’s certainly not always like that. German and Polish pair up on the opposite side of English when it comes to parking your car. In English, you’re usually in or at the car park. I’d say in personally; it always seems like an enclosed, fenced or walled in area for me, whether it’s indoors or outdoors. French prefers at, giving us au parking. Not so in German, where you’re auf dem Parkplatz, and in Polish, which plumps for na parkingu – literally on (top of) the car park.

And it’s not always physical places that see this variation, either. Think of a party: in English, you’ll be at one, as in French, which places you à une fête. But in German, you’ll be auf einer Party, and in Polish, na imprezie, conceiving the party as a flat area of space. Where, presumably, there is just as much fun being had as in the English and French counterparts.

And for the Less Fussy…

There are, of course, languages which make the whole business of location much easier. Spanish, for example, allows the little word en (in) to do a lot of heavy lifting. En la estación, en la universidad, en la fiesta. How’s that for a helping hand? And Greek also tends to use σε (se, in) as a general catch-all for in, at, on, you name it. At the train station? Στο σταθμό (sto stathmó). At the university? Στο πανεπιστήμιο (sto panepistímio). At the party? Στο πάρτι (sto párti). Of course, you can finesse location with more detailed words like πάνω (pano – on top), κάτω (kato – below), μέσα (mesa – inside) and so on, but you won’t necessarily be breaking any rules if you don’t.

And given the trickery involved in learning prepositions in some other languages, that’s something I’m often very grateful for!

Production courses build up a grammar and lexicon through a step-by-step approach. Image from freeimages.com

Production Matters

Having joked about the state of my French at a recent Linguascope webinar, I’ve been giving Paul Noble’s audio French course a whirl to revive and resume my secondary school language skills. Like the very similar Michel Thomas courses, his series is just magic for improving your language production.

Following a gradual, layering model of tuition, the courses provide a solid blueprint for producing language in the learner’s mind. Step by step, they build up a working grammar and lexicon in the gentlest way possible. As no-tears, get-up-and-running-quickly approaches, they’re honestly very hard to beat. And as a refresher for my français, it’s doing a grand job; I’m already thinking of getting the next steps follow-up.

One Way Street?

What I still miss, though, is language training in the other direction. As audio courses, both the Noble and Thomas series are necessarily a little restrained in terms of teaching comprehension. They give you grammatical tools and vocabulary, but using those alone you are more or less back-engineering any input that comes your way in the real world.

This deficit, of course, is largely down to the format of all formal courses, not just these select few. Thanks to the nature of the medium, they are necessarily finite. They can’t possibly contain enough ‘input training’ to improve that aspect of your fluency.

But thankfully, we can fill the other side of the equation through DIY listening techniques that provide a good comprehensible input model. Comprehension skills arise largely through exposure to unpredictable, everyday language, training your brain to be ready for anything in the target language.

The solution, in this case? A bit of podcast hunting, incorporating resources like News in Slow French into my weekly listens. Together with the Paul Noble course, they’ll make an excellent pairing: production and reception, covered.

Gap in the Market

There’s no doubt about it: courses that focus on production, through building a practical mental grammar, are based on sound learning principles, and are incredibly effective. They’ll form an indispensable part of my language learning arsenal for as long as they’re available.

So, not to take anything away from their usefulness, this recent experience is just more support for a blended, multi-resource learning approach, rather than reliance on a single course. Nothing new there. I do wonder, though, if there’s an opening in the market for a really clever resource that combines all of these elements.

Quelle bonne idée!

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 kimíthika I slept
φοβήθηκα fovíkthika 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!