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.

Books on a bookshelf

Bilingual books: tips and tricks for free online reading material 📚

Thanks to a recommendation from another polyglot friend, I’ve been exploring bidirectional translation as a new language learning method lately. It involves working with parallel texts in your target and native languages to strengthen vocabulary and grammar. The only snag: it can be difficult to source books with dual language versions of interesting texts.

Now, Penguin offers a good range of bilingual story books available in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, but an eager linguist will quickly eat through those and be left wanting.

Blockbuster books – in miniature

However, it is possible to get high quality translations of popular texts in many different languages, completely free. The trick is to use Amazon’s ‘free sample’ feature for Kindle books. This allows you to have the first few pages – sometimes a whole chapter or two – sent to your registered device. Simply browse the Kindle bookshop for foreign language titles of interest, then click ‘Send a Free Sample’ on the product page.

To help root out some titles, you can filter Kindle books by language. You can then filter out the fiction books (here are the French ones, for example), or look for non-fiction books that fit your own interests.

What use is a few pages of a story? Isn’t it frustrating to come to a sudden stop after one or two chapters? Well, it doesn’t have to be. If you choose translations of books you are already familiar with – Harry Potter books are a popular choice – then you already know the stories, and are just enjoying parts of them again in your target language. And, of course, if you really like them, you can purchase the full versions from Kindle later.

Pott(er)y for books

I’m like a broken record on the benefits of translated children’s books – particularly the Harry Potter series – for language learners. But they’re great language learning helpers for so many reasons:

  • the stories are familiar, so you can use gist make educated guesses about new vocabulary
  • the language is not particularly complex, as the intended audience was originally youngsters (particularly the early volumes)
  • the stories are broken up into fairly short chapters – an ideal length for the focus of a lesson or learning session

As a starting point, here are links to the first Harry Potter books on Amazon Kindle, in a range of languages. As an extra bonus, most of these titles can be borrowed in full at no cost if you are a Kindle Unlimited member!

And, of course, you can download the matching excerpt from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in English, so you have a perfect bidirectional pair.

Kindle samples are a goldmine for linguists to root around in. That goes particularly for those seeking texts for bidirectional translation, but more generally for anybody looking for quality, interesting reading material. Have you come across any gems? Share them in the comments!

The French flag flying in front of a town hall

Grammar on a budget: CGP French handbook [review]

I’m a big fan of school revision materials as cheaper alternatives to expensive language textbooks. CGP’s foreign language GCSE revision guides are a case in point. The publishers may be targeting teenage students, but the material is just as effective for older, recreational learners.

These language revision guides are largely topic-based, vocabulary-driven textbooks. But French learners can now learn the nuts and bolts of the language on a shoestring; CGP’s KS3 & GCSE French Grammar handbook presents the fundamentals of the language in its trademark concise, colourful way.

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook – (almost) pocket-sized

Grammar, bite by bite

In fewer than 100 pages, the book presents French grammar in palatable, bite-sized chunks. Each major point takes up just a page or two, with simple explanations and clear examples. And the book is packed with colour-coded tables of word forms and conjugations, making it ideal for visual learners.

You can instantly see the attraction of the layout for engaging students on Key Stage 3 / GCSE courses. But it serves as an incredibly accessible grammar guide / refresher for adults, too. Who doesn’t love a bit of colour to aid learning?

CGP KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook

The trademark full-colour CGP layout

Clearly, a guide like this won’t be as comprehensive as a benchmark reference work like Routledge’s French Grammar and Usage. CGP will take you a fair way, though; the range of tenses is covered in the short guide, and even the present subjunctive gets a mention. Unless you’re taking French to advanced / university level, chances are that this little book will cover your basic to intermediate needs. At A5 size, it might even fit in your (admittedly large-ish) pocket.

Talking about language

The guide also offers a lot of support if you’re not comfortable with the jargon used to talk about language (metalanguage). More ‘grown-up’ texts can automatically assume the reader grasps grammatical terms about parts of speech, for example. In the CGP grammar guide, however, they all receive clear, plain English explanations. Thanks to the ‘no fluff’, concise style, the material manages to avoid being patronising, too.

French grammar for under a fiver

CGP’s KS3 & GCSE French Grammar Handbook comes in at under a fiver on Amazon.co.uk right now. This compares very favourably with more ‘mature’ basic reference guides, like Teach Yourself’s French Grammar You Really Need To Know.

There is also a companion workbook available at the same price, with practice tests and quizzes. This is in a slightly less pocket-sized A4 format, dwarfing the actual grammar guide. But it is worth paying the little extra for; it offers lots of reinforcement, with a full answer key provided at the back of the booklet.

It’s perhaps not a completely like-for-like comparison, as the Teach Yourself book has many plus points of its own; it has a highly communicative approach, and at twice the length of the CGP guide, it can afford more page space for extra examples and exercises (which are in a separate book in CGP’s case). However, if you’re on a tight budget, CGP has all the necessary points covered.

It’s a great addition to the CGP range, and a release that means learner texts needn’t cost the earth. French is the only language offered right now, although it would be very welcome – and not inconceivable – to see the same title for German and Spanish if this release does well.

Study material for a course

Course books for linguists: save cash with revision guides

When you commit to learning a foreign language, it’s not unusual for a first step to be seeking out good course material. There are plenty of very well established courses, the best including audio material. The staple Teach Yourself series, for example, was always my favourite place to start when starting out on a new language project.

Unfortunately, it can be an expensive business. Course books, audio CDs, dictionaries, grammar reference guides – it all adds up. Fortunately, there’s a cheaper alternative if you’re after simple beginner materials. And they come with some unique advantages over traditional courses, too!

The wallet-saving secret:
Revision guides intended for first-level language exams at high schools.

It was through writing reviews for several revision guides in recent years that I realised how useful the could be beyond their target audience. For a start, they’re comprehensive; the best guides from publishers like CGP include:

  • Thematically organised vocabulary lists and phrases
  • Grammar reference broken into bite-sized chunks
  • Audio material for listening practice
  • Word glossaries at the back, which double up as handy simple dictionaries

Moreover, they’re cheap. Aimed at schoolkids, they’re meant to be an affordable route to getting the best grades. CGP’s GCSE French (Edexcel) revision guide is just £12.99. For comparison, the full Colloquial French course is £19.99 for the book, and £10 for the CD on Amazon.

Horses for courses

OK, it’s not a completely fair comparison, like for like. A revision guide, by definition, is concise and snappy. It’s meant to remind, not to teach. Conversely, a full course will give you lengthier explanations and more extensive examples.

But sometimes, less can be more. If you want an at-a-glance list of useful words or grammar points, then maybe you don’t want all the extra fluff. Revision guides give you all the content, with very little padding and hand-holding.

What’s more, the CGP guides come with useful extras like online library versions. You might prefer not to lug the physical book everywhere. No problem: just access it via an internet-connected device. You’ll find it much harder, generally, to get the electronic version of a full-blown course as a free addition to the hard copy.

Weighing it up

Here are some key advantages and disadvantages to bear in mind when choosing cheap and cheerful course materials over more ‘grown-up’ stuff:

Revision guides Full courses
Cheaper
Concise but comprehensive
Can include audio material
At-a-glance learning material, no ‘fluff’
Many include online versions at no extra cost these days
Great quick reference
Often fun, colourful publications rather than boring old black-and-white
More extensive examples and explanations
Audio material usually more comprehensive and varied
May include more ‘grown-up’ topics and more relevant examples for mature learners

Going off-course

One final point for consideration is language availability. As schools are the target market, you’ll only find guides for languages commonly taught in schools. As an example, the CGP GCSE guides are available only in French, German and Spanish. Not much luck if you’re after cheap materials in Basque, Finnish or Norwegian.

If you can find a good fit for your language, though, consider revision guides.
Made for kids, great for all beginner linguaphiles!

A dictionary won't always help you learn words in their natural habitat: the sentence.

Sentence building: Go beyond words with Tatoeba

Learning and assimilating vocabulary in a foreign language isn’t simply a case of learning lists of words: context matters. Just like a careful zoologist observing animals in the wild, it’s important to study words in their natural habitat: the sentence.

Conversely, a lot of reference material for language learners fails to provide this context. If you’re looking for single words in your foreign language, there are myriad look-up tools available. Unfortunately, only a few take steps to set the word in situ; Google Translate, for example, is surprisingly better than many online dictionaries at providing context. If you type in a single word, many entries come with a list of translations and a useful list of cross-referenced, related terms too. Arguably a lot more useful to language learners than the actual machine translation feature!

Google Translate is great for single word look-ups, too!

Google Translate is great for single word look-ups.

However, there is little else online in terms of whole-sentence reference, Apart from “basic phrases in…” pages. Indexed, systematic lists of example sentences, complete with translation support, are harder to find.

Habeas corpus (linguisticus)

One open-source resource, though, is changing that. Tatoeba – from the Japanese ‘for example’ – is a vast, and rapidly growing, corpus of thousands of sentences in scores of languages. Moreover, it’s expanding continually through user contributions. And you, as a native speaker of your own language (even if it’s English!), can help expand it further.

With many of the entries including native-speaker audio, it is a fantastic (and still quite untapped) resource for language learners. It’s full of colloquialisms, handy turns of phrase, and authentic language use. There are many ways you can work it into your own learning; here are just a few ideas for starters.

Words in context

Learnt a new word, but not sure exactly how native speakers use it? Type that single word into Tatoeba, and if you’re lucky, a whole load of sentences will come up. It’s a fantastic way to put your new vocab into context, something which definitely helps me to commit new words to memory. If sound is provided, it’s an instant way to practise / improve your pronunciation too, much like the brilliantly useful Forvo website for single words.

Putting your vocab in context with Tatoeba.

Putting your vocab in context with Tatoeba.

Build your own sentence lists

With your free Tatoeba account, you can save your own word lists to store favourite sentences. Simply click the list icon next to a sentence – you’ll quickly start to build quite extensive, custom ‘vocab in context’ learning resources.

There are also collaborative lists, which means you can work together with others. This might be with classmates, or perhaps even a teacher you’re working with remotely on iTalki. Conversely, it’s also an excellent way for teachers to collate and share useful phrase lists as teaching resources.

Combine with Anki

Anki Flashcards is a firm favourite of many linguaphiles for drilling vocab. You can combine it with Tatoeba by exporting your lists from that site as CSV files, then importing them directly into the Anki program. For now, the Tatoeba export will only extract the text, and no associated sound files. But if you’re willing to fiddle, here’s a short guide on including available sound files in your Tatoeba-Anki port.

If you’re a polyglottal sucker for punishment, you can even export the lists with a translation other than your native language, in order to practise two languages at once. See the screenshot below for a rather scary Norwegian-Greek export setup – I’m sure you can think up even more testing pairings!

Changing the language pairing in a Tatoeba export.

Changing the language pairing in a Tatoeba export.

Find ready-made Tatoeba Anki decks

If all the to-and-fro of exporting puts you off, then don’t despair – some Tatoeba decks have already been imported to Anki as shared desks. Check here for a list of them (several including sound files).

Contribute

Finally, the best way to grow the resource is to become part of it. You can add, correct, record and otherwise extend Tatoeba as a member. If you’ve found it useful, it’s an excellent way to give back.

Tatoeba is one more tool in the linguaphile’s online arsenal, and can be worked into a learning routine in many ways. Feel free to share your own experiences and tips in the comments below!

 

Spanish flag

Spanish Grammar Bites: The personal ‘a’

I love language quirks. Little things that your foreign language does, well, just differently. The Spanish personal ‘a’ is the perfect example of that for me.

Learning these little foibles isn’t just a case of speaking correctly – it sets you apart as someone that really knows the language well.

The rule

In essence, the rule is:

When a verb takes a direct object, if that object is a human being, put a before the object.

This might seem a bit strange at first, as ‘a’ means ‘to’ in Spanish. Two examples make this a bit clearer:

  • Veo el castillo (I see the castle)
  • Veo a la mujer (I see the woman)

You’re literally saying ‘I see to the woman’ in Spanish, which might strike a non-native speaker as a little odd. When translating sentences like this into English, there’s no equivalent – you’d simply leave it out. It’s very particular to Spanish, though, and getting it under your belt will mark you off as someone who is a real language master!

In context

Seeking out an example of this in context, I found a nice little headline featuring a personal a:

¿Te gustaría encontrar a tu doble? Would you like to meet your double?

Because your double is (hopefully) another human being, and it’s the direct object of encontrar (to find), it has to be preceded by the little a.

Flippin’ el – watch out

The personal a comes with all the baggage of the usual a, too. Specifically, note that a will combine with a following el (the – masculine singular) to become al, too. So, we have:

  • Veo a la mujer (I see the woman)
  • Veo al hombre (I see the man)

Spanish personal a: video

Here’s a quick ‘n’ easy video to illustrate the grammar point – definitely one of my favourite Castilian quirks!

Change may be accelerated by societal pressures.

Change, society and the language learner

Language never stands still. As learners, we study a moving target. The only constant is change.

It’s something that hits you when you learn from old textbooks. Many old, forgotten language courses still have mileage in them, especially if you like learning the nuts and bolts of grammar early on.  You do have to keep one eye on the relevancy of the language learnt, though.

For instance, I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of months from a Teach Yourself Polish edition that was originally published in 1948. It’s no longer available in print, but it really suits my learning style; I’ve not found a gentler, clearer introduction to Polish grammar in anything newer.

Language reflects social change

Saying that, the world, and the vocabulary that reflects it, have changed a lot since 1948. I won’t find the Polish for computer or mobile phone in there, for example. Neither will I be able to talk about my job (developing language learning software). I can’t even talk about recent political events (what’s the Polish for Brexit or fake news?).

These sweeping and rapid changes tend to affect the content words of a language. Generally speaking, the function words – those nuts and bolts like articles, conjunctions and pronouns – are slower to change. It has taken centuries, for example, for English to whittle down the pronouns ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ to a single ‘you’.

Brave new world

However, we live in times that see status quo smashed and long-held tendencies bucked. One explanation for this may be the increasing speed of information flow through society. Social media facilitates this flow,  catalysing societal change; language, mirroring society, reveals these changes in an ever quicker pace of change.

Recent developments in Sweden, and more recently, Norway, illustrate this society-language two-step nicely. With the emergence of new gender categories such as trans and non-binary, language was left wanting. Swedish han (he) and hon (she) no longer reflected the reality many want to talk about. Broad support to plug this gap led to the adoption of a new, gender-neutral pronoun, hen. The Swedish Academy finally recognised the word in its official word list in 2015. Today, Norway’s Labour Party leads calls for the same in Norwegian, continuing a pace of language change that does not even leave function words untouched.

It’s worth noting that there is nothing truly new about gender neutrality in language. Languages like Finnish and Turkish have long lacked a marker for gender in the equivalent of he/she. The difference is that their systems, presumably, evolved over millennia of language change; Swedish and Norwegian hen have emerged in just a few years, testimony to this new world of rapid change.

Stay ahead of change

So how can the language learner cope in this world? Well, sweeping functional changes are still rare in language, despite the hen example. Changes in usage and convention can happen from generation to generation, like shifts in the Swedish use of ‘you’. Still, these changes won’t make you unintelligible (and nothing a few days in the country won’t cure!).

Otherwise, there are a few tactics you can keep in mind to protect your language skills from becoming outdated.

Be on the lookout

It is important to arm yourself with cultural awareness when using slightly older materials. With old texts, bear in mind that the political world may have shifted; my 1948 Polish course, for example, is littered with military terms, doubtlessly useful to friends and relatives of Polish service personnel settled in the UK post-war. Less useful to me, I’m aware of the vocab I can probably ignore for now.

The names of countries may even have changed; pre-1989 German materials are historical documents in themselves, attesting to a still divided country. The terms for languages themselves may be different; texts on Serbo-Croat for learning the language of Yugoslavia have been swept away in favour of separate texts on the Serbian and Croatian of now independent countries.

Actively build vocabulary

Be aware of how the world has changed; actively seek to plug gaps your learning resources. Google Translate is being updated constantly, so great for finding single terms on modern life. Use tech / computer / lifestyle magazines in the target language to mine for new terms (Readly is a useful subscription service featuring many foreign titles).

Keeping ahead of language change with Google Translate

Keeping ahead of change with Google Translate

Read all about it

Read current affairs in your target language as widely as possible. Online news is (generally) a cost-free way of doing this. Here is a nice list of foreign language outlets to start with. Expose yourself constantly to the topics of the day, and note any new terms for learning. I use Evernote and Anki for adding terms to my vocab bank.

Intimidated by advanced news texts as a beginner? Some media outlets cater for learners of the language. German learners might like to try this podcast by Deutsche Welle, featuring the news of the day in deliberately slow, uncomplicated German. A similar service for Spanish learners is provided by NewsInSlowSpanish.com.

Embrace it

Finally, don’t see language change as a hindrance. Rather, be intrigued by it, and strive to follow developments in your target language country. Learning how a language has changed / is changing can increase your familiarity with both the language and the society it belongs to.

It illustrates perfectly how language should never be studied in isolation on a textbook page, but ‘in the wild’ as a living, breathing creature.

Thanks again to the brilliant NRK radio programme Språkteigen, who recently ran the story of ‘hen’ in Norway, and provided the inspiration for this post!