Is the starting point for functional fluency a list of the right core words? Photo by acscom from freeImages.com

300 Words for Functional Fluency : Miss Swanson’s Elucidating Experiment

Decrepit, dusty old language learning books from bygone days are a guilty pleasure of mine. And sometimes, the most obscure, long-forgotten tomes throw up some shining treasures. Leafing through one such volume this week week, I stumbled across a fascinating gem of a tip that promises a helpful shortcut to functional fluency in a language.

The book in question – George McLennan’s “Scots Gaelic – A Brief Introduction – is not one of the oldest I’ve taken a ramble through, seeing its first impression in 1987. But it contains a curious factoid that served as the basis for a whole chapter on essential vocabulary. Let’s join Mr McLennan, and dive into the strange and curious world of the mysterious Miss Elaine Swanson.

Elaine Swanson and the 300 words

Swanson, explains McLennan, was “director of the New York Language Institute” around the 1930s. Now, her existence may well be apocryphal, as I am yet to find any modern reference to her – or the New York Language Institute – online or otherwise. But this mythical Miss Swanson is noted for one particular and exciting theory. She posited that a spoken vocabulary of just 300 words will suffice to get by in a language.

Being a thoroughly practical kind of person, and seeking empirical proof, she took it upon herself to attempt this feat in English for the duration of a whole three months. Apart from undoubtedly bemusing and irritating friends, relatives and colleagues, this exercise allowed her to compile a list of those core 300 words that represent a level of functional fluency.

Thanks to McLennan’s unearthing of her story, we too can benefit from the fruits of that hard work.

Functional fluency list

Here, arranged by the parts of speech. Clearly, a huge nod goes in George McLennan’s direction for printing this list with Gaelic translations in his book. Otherwise, Miss Swanson’s experiment might have been lost forever.

The final list actually comes in at a little under 300 words. Bear in mind that not every language will match up with these English terms exactly, so it will need a little adapting for other languages. McLennan notes that Gaelic, for example, has no single word for no – instead, this is paraphrased.

And one more note before we begin: some categories and inclusions might seem a little eccentric or unusual. Remember that this list was made in and for a very certain place and a very certain time. It manages to be fairly general, but will need some personalisation!

Miss Elaine Swanson’s Core Vocabulary

Prepositions

at, after, for, from, in, on, to, with

Conjunctions

and, or, if, but, so, that

Pronouns

I, he/she, you

Possessives

my, your, their

Interjections

hello, goodbye, oh!

Articles

the

Nature

fire, light, sun

Business

I assume that Mr McLennan has changed the currency words here for a British audience.

bank, pound, penny, money, office, manager, show, size, shop, trouble, way

Travel

boat, car, country, hotel, left, place, right, station, street, ticket, town, train

Objects

bag, book, letter, telephone, thing, story, word, picture, nothing

Days of the Week

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Modifiers

The original list uses “modifiers” as a kind of catch-all for anything descriptive, making this a mixed bag!

again, all, any, big, clean, cold, correct, down, easy, every, expensive, good, happy, here, how?, little, long, many, more, married, much, new, nice, no, not, now, old, one, other, piece, ready, same, slow, some, sorry, that, there, this, too, also, up, warm, very, well, what?, when?, where?, who?, why?

Food

Miss Swanson could almost be the original author of Duolingo’s “Food” topics…

bread, butter, sweets, coffee, egg, fruit, meat, milk, salt, sugar, vegetables, water

Time

day, evening, hour, minute, month, morning, night, time, today, tonight, tomorrow, week, yesterday

House

bath, floor, house, key, room, table

People

boy, brother, doctor, father, friend, girl, man, men, Miss, mother, Mr, Mrs, name, policeman, sister, woman, women

Clothes

cloth, clothes, coat, dress, hat, shoes, stockings, trousers

Colours

black, blue, green, red, white

Were there no yellow things in Miss Swanson’s world?

Verbs (and auxiliaries)

will, won’t, ask, be (am, are, is, was, were), can/can’t/could, come/came, do/does/don’t/did, eat/ate, excuse, gain, get/got, give, go/went, have/has/had, help, know/knew, learn, like, make/made, must, please, put, read, say/said, see/saw, sent, sit/sat, sleep/slept, smoke, start, stop, take/took, thank, think/thought, understand/understood, use, want, work, write/wrote

A critical eye

Evaluating the list for its practicality, the omissions are often more noteworthy than the generally helpful inclusions. Indeed, I end up with more questions than answers. Why no we or they in the pronoun section, for example? One English word frequency list places we above both he and she, so this might seem like something that needs tweaking. And where is the handy it, which sits firmly in the top ten most common English words in the same frequency table?

If frequency word lists were available (presumably Miss Swanson would have had access to these as director of a linguistic institute), why did she not use these to compile a core vocabulary? That said, this was a personal experiment, and – it is fair to say – probably not exactingly scientific. The aim of fluency was on the terms of the author’s everyday, not a one-size-fits-all average person.

Elsewhere, some of the collapsed categories seem tailored quite specifically to English. We can only assume that the inclusion of possessive their is the gender-neutral one to cover he/she more economically with a single word.

Window on a world

A particularly fascinating characteristic of the list is the choice of present/past verb pairs. Only certain past tenses are included (knew, slept etc.), while others verbs are given only in the present / infinitive form. Presumably the choice relates to the kind of polite, daily conversations the protagonist was trying to replicate during the experiment. Again, this fits with a definition of fluency as a working knowledge of language for the protagonist’s everyday – not everyone else’s. On a related note, it might be quite shocking to note the inclusion of the verb ‘smoke’ these days. Of course, such observations are part of the charm of finding personal vocabulary lists like these: their quirkily subjective nature.

Other initial observations relate to the economy of some of the lower-frequency type of vocabulary. You might wonder, like I did, why some terms are included when they might be creatively paraphrased using other items on the list. Personally, I question why “sun” is there, when “big light”, accompanied by pointing at the sky, would do. Slightly paleolithic, admittedly. Miss Swanson sounds much more civilised than that.

Pidgin English

As a guide to speaking a language, the list is clearly missing something. In particular, her conception of vocabulary is of a set of discrete, individual blocks, without any comprehensive reference to the glue holding them together in speech. There are no grammar rules implied in this list method beyond the few verb tense pairs, a couple of declined verb forms (was, does etc.) and the probably unnecessary inclusion of the definite article.

You can get away without grammar, of course, in effect using the vocabulary with your own logic to create a kind of pidgin. Will that make for ‘good’ French, German, Spanish and so on? No, go the purists. But will it be communicative if you need a basic core fast? Absolutely!

Verbs for lift-off

Miss Swanson does give a nod to a certain kind of sentence glue, however. One of the most striking things about this core vocabulary is the preponderance of verbs. They make up a considerable portion of the magic 300. And with good reason: this super-category of words does a colossal amount of heavy lifting in terms of intention and meaning in a sentence.

Now, I’ve always championed the verb as a key fluency factor. In fact, you can just call me the Verb Guy, since I can’t get enough of them (I write apps to drill them in my spare time!). Miss Swanson clearly spotted the communicative power of verbs, and focusing on verb tricks like employing modal sentence frames can really boost your conversational power, too.

A pinch of salt (and a spoonful of sugar)

So there you have it: a recipe for getting by on just a handful of words. Serve with a dollop of gloriously eccentric sugar and a medium-sized pinch of salt.

But even if the Magic 300 needs some tweaking to our individual circumstances, it strikes me that Miss Swanson was most definitely onto something. Her approach lights a pathway towards communicating – fast – in any language. Beyond that, the highly personal, practical nature of her list makes for a charming and intriguing window onto the world of someone in love with language and words. There is something  very familiar about Miss Swanson that is reflected in all of us linguaphiles.

This long-forgotten experiment attracts the extreme linguist in me, I must admit. If functional fluency can be acquired from a carefully selected core vocabulary, then maybe it is that simple to add a third, fourth, fifth language – and the rest!

What would your 300 look like? Could you get away with fewer than 300 words? What would you add or replace to Miss Swanson and Mr McLennan’s lists? And of the languages you know a little of, how many have you reached Swanson’s functional fluency in? Let us know in the comments!

The Terracotta Warriors would no doubt fare very well on the Duolingo leaderboards.

Battleground Duolingo : Sun Tzu’s Art of Language Learning

Duolingo aficionados cannot have not have failed to miss the recent frenzy over competitive leaderboards. Perhaps you have – no doubt luckily – escaped the red mist and hidden sensibly away from the hordes. Instead, you might have recognised it in the glazed eyes of language learning friends and family who have succumbed.

Yes, Duolingo is merciless: it has been taking brave, eager, wide-eyed language explorers and ruthlessly transforming them into gladiators, one against the other.

The unintended consequence of all this is a new tribe of learner. It has spawned a vast band of Duo warriors. And warriors have one aesthetic: the Art of War. It’s no stretch to claim that Duolingo league tables have given rise to a code of conduct worthy of Sun Tzu himself.

Those tempting charms and glinting jewels wove their tentacles around me tightly, I must admit. So here, I share what I have learnt of this dark art. And, on a more serious note, how the whole shebang can help – or hinder, if we’re not careful – our language learning!

Duolingo: The Art of strigine strategy

Strategy is everything. What kind of warrior are you? There are three key tactics in the path to strigine victory. (Aye. I had to look that word up too.)

Runaway train

The runaway train is the blunt instrument of linguistic military tactics. It demands quick action. Straight off the mark on a Monday morning, the warrior owlet will steam ahead a few thousand points, leaving competitors scrabbling in the dust.

Fighters will have their go-to weapons at hand: the expert topic they can test on repeatedly to bank easy points. They will only switch to more complex instruments – higher level topics – when they are at a safe distance.

Keep looking over your shoulder, though. Those sneaky co-combatants will usually give valant chase. There is nothing more panic-inducing than seeing your closest challengers clock up the points at a rate of knots. Especially if you are stuck somewhere, unable to use your phone for a while…

Duolingo Runaway Train

Duolingo Runaway Train (usernames have been hidden to protect the innocent!)

Lurking with the pack

No time for a relentless sprint? Then lurk with the rest of the pack until the time comes to strike.

This strategy involves keeping pace with the frontrunners, jostling and leapfrogging daily. The sly player will hang back in third or fourth, so as not to induce phone notification panic in the unsuspecting leader. Of course, that is for the dogs on Sunday, as the whole stage is set up for an epic battle for first place.

The upside? Less time-intensive means less battle-weary so soon. And the slow creep will drive your opponents crazy. But be prepared for vocab carnage on Sunday evening!

Duolingo Lurking With The Pack

Lurking With The Pack

The surprise attack

Everybody loves an underdog. Except Duolingo users you unleash this strategy on!

The surprise attacker keeps back a fair distance, biding time at the bottom of the table. It’s an easy week for this Duolingo paladin, merely keeping pace with the minimum amount of effort per day. That way, nobody suspects…

Suddenly, on Sunday night, your powers are unleashed. You thrash away at the keyboard or touch-screen for hours, rising like a phoenix to overtake your clueless adversaries. You were down – but never out.

The price you pay? Well, your whole Sunday, I’m afraid. Because this warrior ain’t going anywhere while there are several thousand points to make up. But it’s worth it to grin from the top of victory mountain. Right?

I just hope there isn’t a runaway train at the top of your leaderboard…

Basking in the glory

And there you have it. A battle plan any self-respecting warlord would have been proud of.

But of course, the warrior is also advised to take a large pinch of salt with every pre-fight meal. Duolingo battleboards are joyful, gamified fun for everyone invested in the system, but not to be taken too seriously.

The question on every fighter’s lips: do they actually work?

Everything in moderation

Well, competitive league-tabling is a bit of fun at best, and nigglingly passive aggressive at worst. The watchful, always-on mindset it fosters is a hoot, but it can get a little fatiguing and time-consuming in the long run. That goes especially for naturally competitive people, whose buttons are furiously pressed by all this. (Yup, me.)

That said, the approach is a wonderful motivator for ensuring very regular practice. But it does require discipline on the part of the user, as the format may encourage some poor habits. The most time-wasting of these is going for easy points, rather than slogging away at difficult units for the same gain. The best way to beat this temptation is to impose house rules on yourself, such as only mining points from higher-level topics.

Seeking points in new places

On the other hand, the hunger for points fosters some very good habits, too, such as dabbling. Points pressure makes it doubly rewarding to dip into the first lessons of a brand new language. This is not least because initial lessons on Duolingo tend to be rather short, and yield a speedy cache of 10-15 points per shot.

Elementary Turkish, for example, has been a saving grace for me this week. Teşekkürler! Beyond the helping hand up a few rungs, a dip into Turkish might just have given me enough of a taste to keep going with it at some point.

Talking of quick point gains, there is also the incentive to dive back into stronger, but less-practised languages. That would be Spanish and French for me, and golding up my Duolingo trees for that pair has become a side goal in itself. A focus on your already proficient languages can also avoid the cognitive dissonance you feel at seeing your developmental languages many levels about them! Let’s get that Duolingo profile matching your real-life skills, eh?

Need for speed

Finally, success in these competitions is often about speed. And speed-translating is an excellent route to building muscle memory in your developing languages. Challenging the brain to deliver an accurate answer within seconds is handy training for routine quick thinking. Because being fast can be handy, both in Duolingo battles and real life, when we often have to seize upon the correct turn of phrase on the spot.

Duolingo have once again played a blinder with addictive learning, turning us all into lingua-warriors. With a bit of healthy moderation, learning this Art of War could build some excellent new habits!

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

Dabbling to joy : allowing yourself guilt-free language exploration

For many, August is the month of holidays. This year, I made it my month of dabbling!

Planning, routine and system are crucial in language learning. But there should always be time for a bit of ranging and roving. Dabbling – or the casual exploration of new languages – is when passionate polyglots really let their hair down. And there are so many opportunities for it these days, with multiple online platforms offering quick, easy – and free – taster courses.

Two-timing – or a hall pass?

For many of us, it can be a real source of guilt to stray from our core language projects. After all, when we look elsewhere, doesn’t it almost feel like we are cheating on those languages closest to our hearts and minds? That our attention should be completely and unwaveringly directed towards our greatest goals? However, giving yourself free rein to explore can be a liberating experience.

Learning to embrace a linguistically curious nature is a healthy step towards becoming a well-rounded polyglot. The joy – and utility – of dabbling is just too good to deny it to yourself. Seizing upon that spirit, I decided to make August my Dabble Month. I used the time to play with everything from Italian to Turkish to Swahili, chiefly thanks to Duolingo. The extra leaderboard points were very helpful, of course! But the utility of dabbling goes far beyond that.

So what can dabbling do for us? And why should we purposefully make time for it between all our ‘serious’ learning projects?

Dabbling out the box

Polyglots, like so many other animals, are creatures of habit. Now, there are benefits to sticking with familiar pastures. It can be very handy to study languages from closely related families, for example. For a start, picking new ones up is so much easier if the rules and structures are already familiar to you.

But sometimes, material can be so familiar that the element of challenge evaporates. We no longer have to think, or try, with the same tenacity. And that defeats one huge benefit of language learning in terms of head health: the mental gym, working out the plasticity of our brains with new puzzles. When dabbling, you suddenly challenge yourself to make sense of new, unfamiliar patterns. Instead of falling back on your automatic, ingrained thinking, you must conceive brand new categories.

Just take a bite of Turkish, for example. To those focused tightly on Indo-European languages, it is a revelation. Its definite accusative and vowel harmony system require IE-soaked newbies to think on their feet. And just a brief dip in the water reveals that there is much more to language life than S-V-O! It is a big, wide and varied world of words out there.

Sticking to the same language family presents just one picture of how language can be, how human beings perform things with languages. Straying from the same path opens up the box.

Making connections

That said, we can also turn this argument on its head. Through dabbling with closely related languages, you can add extra strings to your polyglot bow very quickly and easily.

But there is an additional upside to this. Getting to know your core language’s closest cousins ultimately means you understand it more intimately, too. Seeing how two related languages treat the same root teaches a lot about the development of vocabulary and sound systems, for instance. And that can only cement your proficiency in the key language.

Naturally, you might worry about getting things mixed up. Personally, I put off exploring Swedish for years for fear of ‘contaminating’ my Norwegian. In fact, our brains are much more resilient to this than we think, and research into bilinguals provides some evidence for this. As personal proof, I recently spent a couple of weeks marvelling over the differences between Norwegian and Swedish (Coffee and wine are neuter?! Wolf is varg and not ulv?!) and I feel more informed, not more confused.

The grass is sometimes greener

Polyglots are always on the lookout for their next big language love. And dabbling is a great way to test the water for new projects on the polyglot trail.

Remind yourself that there is no harm in doing a few tentative lessons in a new language to see if you like it. Learn a couple of basic words and phrases, and listen out for whether those sounds speak to your heart. Your never know – those first steps just might turn into a lifelong passion.

Of course, shopaholic bibliophiles (of which there are many of us) may also have a ready-made dabbling shelf  thanks to past purchases, as yet not fully explored. I am certainly guilty of this. Simply think of them as passion flowers yet to blossom!

The shelf of forgotten language projects - the perfect place for dabbling!

The shelf of long forgotten language learning purchases, or ‘passion flowers yet to blossom’ – the perfect place for a bit of dabbling!

Keeping it fun

This last point speaks for itself. We are polyglots; languages are just excellent, brain-bristling fun.

As with all things we love, it is healthy to let yourself off the leash sometimes. All work and no play can dull the shine of even the deepest passions. Allow yourself to enjoy a leisurely ramble without the pressure and constraints of performing or achieving.

It doesn’t matter if you have zero plans at all for using the fruits of your dabbling. It doesn’t even matter if you feel you won’t remember much of it at all in the long term (although give yourself the benefit of the doubt – even when you feel you have learnt little, something will stick!). If you have fun in the process, that alone is a healthy outcome.

Think of it as naughty but nice food. Cakes, chocolate, biscuits… All that stuff we sensibly keep a lid on most of the time. But now and again, it is so satisfying to gorge on goodies at a party or a meal out. If you love languages like you love food, then allow yourself a binge from time to time!

Dabbling to a happier life

In short, dabbling can truly jolly up your language learning routine. And naturally, those benefits are not confined to languages alone. Be a life explorer, and dabble across all your fields of interest. Programmers, try a new programming language or framework. Cinema buffs, plump for a totally different genre for your next few choices. Sporty? Try an completely alternative approach or discipline.

Dabbling is invaluable prep for life’s unpredictable nature. Dabble, and keep that mind ready for anything the world can cook up.

Streamers

I Get So Emotional, Bébé : Using Positive Emotion to Improve Vocabulary Recall

That positive emotion enhances learning seems intuitive to us. How much more do we learn feeling motivated and wired, compared to those times we try to cram when feeling flat and uninspired?

Unsurprisingly, there is a heap of research that backs up the intuition. Some investigations, such as this 2017 paper, focus on the exact mechanism operating between emotion and memory. A key factor in enhanced learning, and later recall, appears to be the way positive, heightened emotion focuses the attention tightly on the stimulus – our learning material. The brain attaches a greater salience to the stimulus, encoding the information for readier recall later.

The importance of these “focal enhancements” of emotion on memory has spawned rafts of scientific papers on the subject. Classroom educators are already working these findings into their practice.

So how can it help us language learners?

Once more, with feeling

Firstly, creating happy thoughts at the point of initial memorisation is not always the easiest place to start happying up your learning. It is rather impractical to set up all-singing, all-dancing scenarios during your systematic vocabulary work. Regular, planned drilling with tools like Anki will always be a rather straightforward and plain – though invaluable – technique.

But you can plan to use new material in a way that associates material with a positive emotional response later. This takes a little forward-thinking, and involves setting up occasions where language use triggers smile momentsthose socially rewarding, oxytocin-bound interactions that feed our social reward circuits and give us warm, fuzzy feelings. Precisely those feelings are the ones to give our words and phrases salience within the recording brain.

If you have face-to-face lessons, for example, is there a humorous or colloquial phrase using new vocabulary that you can roll off to your tutor? Quotation archive sites are great to search for these. Similarly, could you Google a joke or pun using some of your recent word additions, and reel it off to your captive audience?

Making a conversation partner smile or laugh with an unexpected aphorism is a wonderful way to unleash that elusive burst of pride / surprise / joy. Chances are that you will recall the associated words or phrases much more readily than otherwise. You will have tied the material to the lived experience of positive feedback.

Anticipated emotion

Setting the scene for future reward leads us to another key link between emotion and learning: anticipation. Looking forward to the fruits of your mental labour is an extremely powerful motivator. Just the expectation of feedback is enough to increase engagement and focus – and through that, memory. For example, one particular research paper concludes that simply anticipating speedy feedback sufficed to increase performance.

The easiest practical lesson to take from this is that we need something to look forward to when learning. Working with a tutor who supplies constructive, regular feedback is one route. But even as a lone learner, there are some simple ways to build anticipation into your positive feedback loop.

Informal test-based feedback, for example, is available in all sorts of languages online. This German self-test on the Goethe Institute site is a great example. On the other hand, if you like your feedback more formalised, cultural institutes frequently offer official exams of proficiency. Many lone learners work towards gaining accreditation such as the Bergenstest in Norwegian, or the JLPT in Japanese. The anticipation of getting solid results can drive a learner forward, especially in the absence of direct teacher or peer feedback. Failing that, even the goal of doing well on a competitive platform like Duolingo can inspire a positive buzz.

Returning to our gregarious friend oxytocin, social anticipation can be the warmest and fuzziest kind. Using your languages socially need not mean a fully-fledged trip abroad, of course. Any kind of interaction, be it at a local language café group, with native speakers at work, or just fellow learners, can be the emotional carrot to your language learning donkey.

Clowning around

Of course, humour is something that works particularly well in these social settings. Getting a laugh from creative, or – let’s joyfully admit it – silly use of language, can be a nice way to make vocabulary stick, too.

The proof of this is written all over the internet, and it starts with Duolingo. The behemoth of online language learning resources famously uses comedic sentences throughout its language modelling. People who find something funny want to talk about it, naturally. And Duolingo users have turned to one particular feed (forgive the name) to share their favourite eccentricities of the platform.

The moral of the tale? Use inane, ridiculous, silly language to practise. Be a clown. Talk about it. Share it with fellow learners and subject your wider family and friends to it. Laugh – and remember.

 

The joy of teaching

Finally, it is hard to underestimate one joy close to the hearts of linguaphiles: the joy of teaching. The fact that teaching others helps our own learning is well documented. But that thrill of seeing something click for someone else plays right along with the positive emotion game.

Bust this myth before you start: you do not have to be an expert to teach something. You just need a bit of knowledge you can share with someone else. If you have a learning buddy, or compliant family member or friend, share with them your most recent observations about your target language. Make your explanation as interesting and illuminating as possible – and enjoy the click when it happens. Remembering the moment you taught the material to another person will be a superb hook to remember the material itself.

Little and often

As the examples show, working positive emotion into your learning routine does not mean maintaining constant jollity. Emotional content need not be dramatic or earth-shattering. In fact, it should not be so. The same research suggests that strong, negative emotional states like stress can have the opposite effect.

What’s more, we clearly cannot sustain an environment of constant emotional excitement. Even if that were possible, it would be counter-productive. Our brains are not so easily tricked. It would simply become our new ‘normal’, and all the salience benefits lost.

Instead, the methods outlined above are some routes to routinely and subtly get happy with your language learning and practice. Stay positive, stay connected, and enjoy all those motivation and memory benefits!

 

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

Laughs for Linguists : Polyglot Picks for Edinburgh Fringe 2019

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

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

French 🇫🇷

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

German 🇩🇪

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

Italian 🇮🇹

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

Spanish 🇪🇸

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

Share your Edinburgh Fringe

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

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

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!

Dictionaries - a great fallback, but is it cheating? Image from freeimages.com

But is it cheating? Language support tools and polyglot pride

You’ve prepared for this moment. You’re about to walk up to the counter and order that coffee in the language you’ve been learning for months. But it’s the heat of the moment. You’re a bit nervous. What’s the polite way to ask for something again? Is it cheating to look it up?

These are times when the sheer availability of information blurs the line between achieving and cheating. Digital tools are challenging the notion of success across all education fields. So what exactly is cheating? And do we need to worry about it, as independent language learners?

Defining cheating

How we define cheating changes a lot according to circumstances. For example, during my high school language exams, the idea of taking along vocabulary support was a strict no-no. Students had to commit everything to memory. It was hard work, but we accepted it as a necessary slog.

So it was with a little envy that I learnt, some years later, that some exams boards were now allowing dictionaries in during the writing component. Dictionaries! They would have chucked us poor students straight out of the hall after even a whiff of a crib sheet or a glimpse of scribbled notes on a hand.

That said, there is some sense in allowing some brain-support tools into the exam environment. Learning how to use resources like dictionaries and verb tables is as much a part of language proficiency as the actual committing to memory, and more so than ever these days. We live in a world full of expert, digital help at the touch of a smartphone. Testing how students use their language knowledge and resourcefulness is, perhaps, a better way to gauge how they will cope in the real world.

Setting a high bar

Despite all this, there is a gleeful satisfaction in smashing the memory game. I suspect that there is a memory purist in many of us polyglot enthusiasts, setting the cheating bar pretty high. Who hasn’t felt a little fist-pump moment that time a perfectly formed phrase just trips off the tongue without a single prompt?

More importantly, no support tool is perfect. Maybe you have also given a knowing eye-roll when hearing that old, annoying chestnut about language learning being unnecessary in a world of Google Translate. Likewise, you have also probably spotted a couple of very iffy translations yourself when using it. Machine translation is getting good – but it’s not quite there yet.

The fact is that tech tools are incredibly powerful. But knowing how the language works and combining your own knowledge with their answers is exponentially more powerful. These platforms support – they do not replace – the expert linguist in us.

Parlour tricks for the everyday

Of course, improving memory to maestro levels is a noble goal in itself, and many have achieved fame on the back of that. Russian mnemonist Solomon Shereshevsky displayed some phenomenal recall skills that bought him to the attention of a public far beyond his home country.

A raft of pop science books and documentaries feted his seemingly superhuman abilities to remember items. In the 1950s, a decade obsessed with the rapid progress of humanity towards a perfected pinnacle, Shereshevsky ignited the question: are we born with super-memory, or can we develop it? As language learners, it’s something we would all love to know.

Well, the answer is encouraging: it seems that we can learn it. Memorisation expert Tony Buzan has been impressing amateur mnemonists for years with his books, crossing the divide between parlour trick and genuinely useful learning skill. He has even applied some of his mind-mapping memory techniques directly to language learning, and the results seem promising from the reviews.

Whether or not we call dictionary look-up cheating, getting these tricks under your belt is surely more rewarding than that reach-for-the-phone “I give up!” moment on a trip.

Aim high – but be kind to yourself

In short, there is no need to be too hard on yourself. Support tools help us through many a sticky situation. In fact, these tools can be invaluable during the learning process itself. Translation and dictionary sites can be systematically mined to make connections and expand your vocabulary from day one.

Still, perfect recall improvement techniques can help you use these tools less and less frequently in the wild. And managing that can be a rich source of pride at your abilities as a language learner.

Clontarf, Dublin: achievement is often about the journey, not the destination.

Achievement on our terms: language learning as the joy of exploration

If ambition drives you to excel in a field as (traditionally) academic as languages, chances are you are achievement-oriented. Striving for success – however we choose to measure it – is part and parcel of loving the polyglot craft. Achievement gives us a buzz.

As independent learners, however, we are free to define achievement however it works best for us. It’s something that occurred to me on a trip to Dublin this weekend, a break that prompted me to dip my now-and-again toe into the Irish language once more.

Strictly casual

You might have a similar relationship with one of your languages. Irish fascinates me. It is both somehow familiar, yet so different from the Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages I usually work with. It fills a missing piece in my understanding of the Indo-European family. For all that, I love dabbling in it through the odd couple of lessons on Duolingo, or a leaf through a basic Irish grammar.

That said, me and Irish are involved on a strictly casual basis. I have no particular goal in mind. No exams, no trip to the Gaeltacht to chat with locals. I just enjoy exploring when the mood takes me.

The way I approach Irish reminds me of the ‘down the rabbit hole’ experience many have with encyclopaedia site like Wikipedia. Browsing a single article can lead the reader to click link after link, hopping from one article to another. Exploration is the end in itself, the achievement won. Whatever the content, however idle the amble, we are just that little bit richer at the end for it.

The result? Walking around public spaces in Ireland is now a series of ‘aha!’ moments. This weekend, it chuffed me to pieces to recognise the occasional word and structure in the Irish language signs  in and around Dublin.

My proudest (and geekiest) achievement: recognising eclipsis on a sign for a men’s swimming area. It’s a lovely moment when you realise that even the most superficial amount of learning can help make sense of the world around you.

https://twitter.com/richwestsoley/status/1147912238373769221

Tantalising tangents

Achieving via the tangential route is nothing new for me, and you have likely experienced it too. At school, I was a diligent and effective student. But regularly, my teachers would drag me back on course as I’d drift off on some off-the-beaten-track knowledge expedition, away from the prescribed curriculum and onto (for me) exciting, uncharted territory.

In language classes, I was eager to express what had meaning for me – usually what I had been up to lately. Without fail, I’d thumb straight past the pages on “a strawberry ice cream, please” to the appendix reference on the past tense. That was where my spark of interest lay. Learning by personal detour meant that my sense of achievement was so much greater.

As my language journey progressed to college, one route led me to ‘collecting’ terms for birds and other wildlife in German. Useful for my A-level exam prep? Perhaps not. But fascinating and fun to the nascent language geek in me? You bet!

It hit homes in this lovely tweet I spotted recently, which neatly sums up our freedom to learn:

 Achievement on your terms

The fact is that the polyglot community has already uprooted language success from its traditional environment of formalised, assessed learning. Freed from the shackles of exam performance, there are as many reasons to learn and enjoy as there are methods to learn.

We are incredibly lucky to be part of a learning community that minimises achievement pressure like this. Even if that achievement is simply the joy of exploration and wonder, it is no less valid than acing written exams on a university course.

We are our own measure of success. Learn what, and how, you love. And let that be your achievement!

It’s a date! Planning for language success with extreme calendarising

As a naturally busy (read: untidy) mind, the discovery of proper planning in recent years has been a godsend for my language learning. From happy-go-lucky, read-a-few-pages-here-and-there amorphous rambler (goodness knows how I managed to amble my way through university), an organised me rose from the ashes of chaos. The past decade or so has seen me become a much better learner for it. That bright but scatterbrained schoolkid who had to attend interventional self-organisation training at school finally realised the error of his ways.

The secret isn’t particularly well-kept, mind. Just the discipline to set weekly targets, combined with a bit of creative to-do listing using software like Evernote and Wunderlist, are enough to clear the path to a wholly more efficient kind of learning.

There’s always room for improvement, though. To-do lists are great. They’re just not particularly precise.

You probably know the issue well, too. You have a list of things you want to do by the end of the day. But come the evening, you realise that you’ve left them all rather late. That is the best way to turn tasks you might otherwise find fun or engaging into chores.

It’s a date

Recently, I came across an article about a woman who halted that drift into nebulous indolence by calendarising everything. Now, her example might come across as, well… a little extreme, as far as productivity drives go. Rising at 4:30am, scheduling time with family and friends to the minute – well, my life isn’t that busy. But there’s definitely something in this approach worth trying.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending some moments each evening to schedule explicitly each to-do on the next day’s calendar entry. It’s a flexible schedule, of course, with plenty of slack built in (I’m neither monster nor machine!). But giving my daily plan some solid structure has made a big difference.

Planning a day of leisure and learning through explicit calendarising

Planning a day of leisure and learning through explicit calendarising

Following a plan you made the night before is a little like playing the role of both instructor and learner. In pre-planning, you determine the course of action for your future self. Following that route, there is a sense that this past self is instructing your present course of action.  And for me, that purposeful split personality, separating planner-self and learner-self, both busts drift and yields a solid boost for discipline.

Seize the day

As your own day-to-day educational planner, you are designing your own curriculum as you go along. The upshot of this is that the day view of Google Calendars suddenly becomes extremely useful. And that goes for that wealth of other free tools, which suddenly become invaluable planning buddies.

The idea of creating your own ‘personal college’ with a disciplined daily approach has relevance well beyond languages. It has gained some traction particularly in the US, where university costs have become prohibitive for some.

Super-learner Scott Young, for example, took advantage of free online materials to work through the entire MIT computer science curriculum in his own time. With a raft of free platforms and resources available to linguists, we are perfectly placed to do the same. Playing the role of your very own course architect and calendarising curriculum scheduler, you can reap similar rewards.

So am I cured of my chaotic tendencies? Well, I never want to lose that bit of slack I still build into my routines. I think a little bit of chaos is good, especially for creative souls. But a little extreme calendarising gives me just enough structure to balance things on the right side of discipline.

Variety is the cheese of life. Image from freeimages.com

Variety is the cheese of life : Acknowledge and bust your rut!

Variety of approach has always been a hot topic for me in language learning. Changing up your sources and materials is one of the best ways to maintain high interest and motivation in a study regime.

But I discovered something more to that trick in recent weeks: the same guiding principle is an excellent strategy for keeping the rest of your life bubbling effervescently, rather than fizzling out into stagnation.

Someone moved my cheese!

In the classic productivity title Who Moved My Cheese, Dr Spencer Johnson details the very human tendency to fall into patterns of sameness. These patterns make us inflexible and impervious to change. In other words, they get us stuck in a rut.

Ruts are funny things. You can be stuck in one, yet not realise it. And it can take a big disruption to shed light on it.

For me, life was seemingly in perpetual motion. Working between several UK cities, the commuting rhythm gave the impression of a geographically open, free life. And don’t get me wrong; there is a great freedom in working both remotely and on the move, with a couple of weekly office days providing an anchor point between travels.

But what we do not see is how rigidly arranged everything is behind the scenes. Movement was ongoing, but within very narrow confines. It was motion, for sure, but it was always the same motion. I played the role of master of my own destinies, but in reality, it wasn’t me doing the managing. It was the train and plane schedules. Travel plans come with unique, prohibitive restrictions thanks to peak pricing, busy services to avoid (especially for someone who hates big crowds) and fitting work around family and friend commitments.

The result? I’d become a creature of habit without realising it. I knew exactly where my cheese was, and I always expected it to be there. The same trains, the same planes, the same routes.

Until they messed my train schedules up!

Desperately seeking cheeses

Yes: London Northwestern and Virgin Trains, in their wisdom, took a bulldozer to my well-trodden paths up and down the country. Obviously, there was some greater logic behind this. Some improvement or efficiency saving for the greater good. But my safety blanket, my familiar routine, was simply no longer there.

First, I felt panic. Then, realisation: I had been in an unknowing rut, always returning to the same spot for my little nub of cheese. In a life characterised by change, I had become inflexible to it, spoilt by the continuity I enjoyed up to that point.

It was time to relearn cheese-hunting.

Experiment and enjoy the variety

With nothing to lose – my original services were no longer an option, in any case – I started to change my calendar up a little. I experimented with a number of alternative routes, not settling on one, but going out of my way to try out the possibilities.

Crucially, I resolved to be brave, and particularly, to try routes I might not have ordinarily considered. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is a healthy habit in learning. And, I found, it can be just as helpful in day-to-day life too.

Somewhere in the mix, you hit upon some nice surprises.

Same place, fresh eyes

The treasure in the ruins, for me, was the discovery of some very cheap and empty early hours services to London. Instead of arriving at 9:30am, I would get to the capital at 7am. Ouch.

But wait. There’s a gift in there. It’s the gift of time.

Instead of racing to the office to get a good two hours of desk time before lunch, I could take my time. And it dawned on me that I could take my time in a pretty exciting place. London was mine for a full two hours.

It’s a wonderful experience rediscovering a place that you began to associate only with work. I planned walks, coffee stops, sightseeing detours. I got to know the city as a pleasure again, rather than a chore. The Thames. Westminster Abbey. And St Paul’s Cathedral, just a stone’s throw from the office! I’d been missing out on so much.

St Paul's Cathedral, London - my bit of variety this week!

St Paul’s Cathedral, London –
a bit of variety for me this week!

Coming full circle

Linguists, bear with me: these circumlocutions do come full circle, right back to language learning. On my London walking adventures, I stumbled back into the territory of Foyles, the magical book Mecca on Charing Cross Road. Foyles has, by a long stretch, the best language learning department of any UK bookshop. What a rediscovery!

And just think: if it hadn’t been for those pesky schedule changes, I’d never have stumbled across that Aladdin’s cave of volumes again – at least for a long while.

Foyles - the place to find variety in language learning books!

Foyles, London

So in life, as in languages, a change – forced or not – can respark the joy. Someone moved my cheese, but it reminded me that life is full of different cheeses for the hunting (and not just the corny song kind).

Keep movement in your life. Learn the lesson of variety. And stay on the lookout for fresh cheese!