Close-up of daydreaming eye, full of wistfulness. Image from FreeImages.com

The Power of Wistfulness : Misty-Eyed Language Learning

Sometimes, a distant goal can exert a greater pull than an immediate one. It’s all down to the mysterious power of wistfulness.

I’ve been learning Gaelic for a few years now. It’s always been at a fairly steady, casual pace, never rushed or urgent. That’s probably because it’s always felt like a sociable endeavour rather than an academic one; classes and chat clubs are a chance to catch up with friends as much as learn a language.

It’s when I’m away from that environment that the nature of that changes dramatically. And it’s particularly strong when I’m very far away.

I clocked it this week, at the tail-end of the post-August grind-back-into-gear. For many of us, there’s been a big break from classes over summer, and Gaelic was no exception out of term-time. Chat groups have been quiet too, what with folk off on their hols and such like. That’s a whole month and beyond without any structured language learning.

The result? I’ve started kicking off each day with “Alexa, play BBC Radio nan Gàidheal“. I’ve plunged into some proper reading at last, giving a new translation of Animal Farm a go (even though it’s a wee bit tough for my level). BBC Alba is my current go-to on iPlayer of an evening. And I’ve been dipping into an Old Irish primer to fill in the historical gaps. Distance has been like a lightning rod to my motivation!

The Power of Wistfulness

What’s happened? Well, I’d call it the power of wistfulness. When something treasured or important becomes distant, people tend to grow wistful and nostalgic for it. And that, in turn, multiplies the joy that comes from immersing yourself in it, from revelling in it, even, as a source of comfort. It explains in part why a (formal) learning break can sometimes work wonders.

It’s similar to the effect you get after coming back from a trip to your target language country. You just know you’ll get a mini boost to your learning for a good few weeks after your return. It’s because absence really can make the heart grow fonder, as you crave anything that restores that warm connection. There’s almost an irony there, of course; after returning from a trip, I’ll sometimes study the language more than in the lead-up to it!

So, here I am, listening to solemn choral music on Gaelic radio, feeling all sorts of longing for roves around the Scottish Highlands. Twee, I know, and I’m sure I’ll return to lazy ways when the calendar ramps up again. But who’s complaining when it’s driving some progress? I’ve probably immersed myself more in past couple of weeks than I have since I started Gaelic. And that morning radio in the target language is fast becoming a healthy language-learning habit I hope to continue.

The power of wistfulness can do funny things.

 

Books, glorious books. And you can pick most of them up for a bargain price at Wob, too.

Wob, Two, Three, It’s Second-Hand Books for Me

Loads of language books? Check. Great prices and free postage? Check. Social conscience? Check. All reasons why Wob (formerly World of Books) is my latest second-hand bookseller of choice.

As you might know, I’ve become a bit of a second-hand book fiend of late. I’m positively gobbling them up. It’s a combination of the great value and the nostalgia for me. For a couple of pounds, I can get great resources that take me right back to those analogue days when I first got hooked on languages. And sometimes, the oldies really are the goodies!

Wob You Lookin’ At?

The thing is, when you’re looking through pages and pages of second-hand book listings with stock photos, it’s hard to gauge their quality. To help with this, most market sites, like eBay, AbeBooks and Amazon Marketplace, use a set of fairly standard quality descriptors: like new, very good, good, acceptable / well-read and such like. As you can’t look at the book before you buy it, you’re relying on the honesty of the seller here.

This is the main reason I like Wob so much. Out of all the sellers I’ve bought from, their descriptions have tended to be the most honest and reliable of all. Unsurprisingly, great quality control is a point they drive home in their marketing, and it certainly seems to differentiate them from other sellers. As a result, it’s a pleasure to wait for books in the post that won’t require too much aggressive DIY book restoration!

Daylight Wobbery? Far From It!

It goes without saying that price is always a big plus point when buying second-hand. Like most used book outlets these days, Wob appears to use dynamic pricing software to set those price tags. This gauges all sorts of things, like supply, demand, click interest and so on, adjusting prices accordingly in real time. For that reason, if you have your eye on a book, it’s a good idea to favourite it, then check back regularly to see if you can grab it at a more bargainous price.

There’s another trick to leap on a best price, too. Wob, like many other eCommerce sites, also sells via other channels, notably eBay and AbeBooks. It’s always worth looking up the same book on those alternative storefronts before buying, as the prices can be quite different. Whether that’s due to completely different dynamic pricing algorithms or whatever, I’m not sure. But it does mean that site-hopping for a bargain pays dividends.

A wee, timely tip: they do quite a nice 5% off two books offer on their eBay store at the moment.

We Only Have Wob Planet

Last, but certainly not least, Wob also makes environmental concerns a central thrust of its business ethos. The company is a certified member of the B Corp movement, a benchmark for sustainability in commerce. Arguably all second-hand booksellers are environmentally responsible in similar ways, at least in terms of encouraging reuse, and minimising over-consumption and waste, but it’s nice to see it celebrated!

So there you have it. So many reasons to say three cheers for Wob. And so many excuses to buy lots more books (as if I needed them).

 

A rose in black and white, in memory of Queen Elizabeth II. Image from freeimages.com

Queen Elizabeth II and the Power of Language

The UK entered a period of national mourning this week, after the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II. As the world reflects on her qualities, it’s worth noting one very close to our own hearts: she understood the bridge-building power of language.

It’s a little-celebrated fact that the Queen was a talented linguist herself, fluent in French. Her language abilities are a side the British public heard precious little of; perhaps the spectacle of a monarch speaking anything other than Queen’s English never chimed well with the patriotic symbolism the figurehead is supposed to espouse.

But perhaps this kind of patriotism is one that travels better than home-bound nationalism. It’s the patriotism of faithfully representing your own community, while giving respect to others. Queen Elizabeth II employed this to great effect while supporting British diplomacy abroad.

In fact, she understood something even more fundamental about the power of language. She understood that it only takes a few words to build a bridge. Fluency isn’t essential.

One particular story that came to light this week spotlights that beautifully. In 2011, the Queen made an unprecedented state visit to Ireland, the first since the Republic gained its hard-fought independence. Surprising officials who had advised against it, she opened her speech to gathered dignitaries with an address as Gaeilge:

A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde
(to the president and friends)

Just five words, but the significance was huge. Former President Mary McAleese, at her side, summed it up with a simple wow.

Languages are powerful, and that power can be used for good.

A few words can’t erase history. But they can begin to clear a path to the future. To understand this is the hallmark of a true diplomat.

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

Location Location : Prepositions of Place Between Languages

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

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

Approximate Location…

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

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

Diverging Laylines

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

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

And for the Less Fussy…

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

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

Learning Places : Banff and Macduff Bay

Learning Places

Do you ever find yourself learning the same things in the same places? Not intentionally, but somehow drifting into the same languages, the same subjects, according to where you are?

I’ve been on a well overdue parental visit on the north-east coast again this week after a hectic few months. And I’ve noticed that something of a pattern has emerged. Despite having a gloriously diverse language library to pick and choose from, and well-made general dabbling intentions, I always go for a Gaelic book while I’m staying here.

Ambient Inspiration

Maybe it’s seeing the mountains of East Sutherland far across the water, near which Nancy Dorian researched the sadly moribund local dialects of Gaelic, that prompts me. Or perhaps it’s just that quintessentially Scottish coastal mix of sea, sky and moorland that gets me in the mood. Whatever it is, I’m more likely to settle down with Gaelic here than in any of my other favourite reading places.

Places for learning: Banff and Macduff Bay

Banff and Macduff Bay, across from which the hills of Sutherland can just be made out

There’s a potential downside to that, according to some educational psychologists. Research into context-dependent memory suggests that material learnt exclusively in one environment may be harder to recall in others.

But the flip-side of that is the use of wider memories as triggers for learnt material. In my case, think of home, remember your Gaelic.

The choice of book says a lot, too. As if to match the homely nostalgia, on each trip home I’ve been working my way further into Roderick Mackinnon’s original Teach Yourself Gaelic, 1971 (1992 reissue). A treasure of an old language book, if ever there was one.

Learning places : A copy of Teach Yourself Gaelic in front of a seaside view

An unashamedly posed shot of Teach Yourself Gaelic

 

What languages, books and places go together for you? Do you have a preferred nook or corner of the world to settle down to some study in? Let us know!

A sign for the internet. TikTok, this way! Image from FreeImages.com

Have a Break? Have a TikTok!

I’m always looking for five-minute language learning boosters here and there. If you’ve missed the hundred and one other times I’ve been saying it (I blame the excitement), I’ve been a bit busy of late. And it’s at our busiest moments that we need a bit of that quick fix magic.

Cue…. TikTok. Those who still resist, I hear your groans. I must admit that I was a bit late to TikTok myself, a reluctant infinity-scroller. I’m probably a little off its target demographic, too, although the great and mystic algorithm tends to take care of that, and pen you in with like-minded folk.

But once that (granted, a little unsettling) read-your-mind hocus pocus had happened, my For You tab was filled with a stream of mini language lessons. Some decidedly better than others, of course; TikTok’s a very mixed bag. But some content creators are churning out admirably witty and thoughtful learning snippets you won’t find in the textbooks.

Many of these are just clear, plain facts, delivered with welcome simplicity. But the best are done with a dash of humour, and since that gets the likes, there are more and more of them popping up. It’s the self-motivated, individual creators, rather than the big, organisational accounts, that are best at this, and subsequently the most personable and fun to fill your feed with.

Here’s a selection of some of my favourite TikTok lingua-creators!

French

The epitome of short and snappy, @Madame_angol’s videos feature all sorts of vocab and grammar tidbits. On the other hand, if it’s a bit of Québecois you’re after, @french.canadian.nicolas exudes francophone cool from every pore.

German

You can tell the dedicated from the dabbling content creators straight away, and @germanwithniklas is firmly in the former camp. He has loads of fun content, and post reassuringly regularly. Similarly, for a dash of German everyday life and language, @liamcarps is worth a gander.

Spanish

A language teacher that just gets 30-second humour, @patry.ruiz stands head and shoulders above most of the Spanish content creators on TikTok. Another favourite, covering loads of mainstream classroom topics, is @learnspanishathome. Solid, but plenty of laughs too!

Best of the Rest

I’d be here all day if I could cover everything in a short post like this. But other favourites include @caldamac, who features a mix of Gaelic and wholesome outdoorsy content. Then there’s @seamboyseam, who could put together a whole comedy show with his material on the Irish language. Seriously worth a look even if you have a passing interest in the language.

TikTok Back Control

Of course, the quick fix element is a moot point if you don’t control the beast. Pruning and honing your social media is a vital skill to avoid scrollsome insanity. But if you hold the reins, and carefully fashion the TikTok behemoth to your own needs, it can really help bridge those busy weeks.

What are your go-to micro-lesson accounts? Let us know in the comments!

Incidentally, feel free to follow @richardwestsoley! I’m no master TikTokker myself, but it would be lovely to spot some of you there.

Sheet music with lyrics in Polish. Image from freeimages.com

Singalong-a-Language : Lyrics Sites for Learners

Music from other countries was a big early draw to foreign languages for me. The lyrics seemed magical, if only I could memorise and sing along to them.

As a wee young thing, I would sit rewinding and replaying CDs, tapes and videos (largely Eurovision, as that was the best multilingual source in those pre-web days) trying to transcribe what I heard. If I really liked a song, I’d get hold of a dictionary in its language, and try to match those rough transcriptions with a translation.

It was a labour of love, and often a labour in vain – like trying to climb Mount Everest before I could walk.

But those early games with lyrics prepared me more than I realised for all the language learning I went on to do. I not only learnt vocabulary and grammar, but accent, intonation, differing phonologies, relationships between languages, differences between language groups, other writing systems… The list goes on.

One-Click Lyrics

These days, of course, it’s a whole lot easier to get hold of lyrics to foreign language songs you love. Not that transcription isn’t still a great exercise for all the reasons above. But for when you just want to sing along, your hymn sheet is just a search away.

The thing about lyrics sites is that they have often not been the best examples of friendly, cutting-edge web design out there. You still find plenty of examples of clunky, basic sites, often peppered with ads to make them financially viable to run. But there are some gems amongst the chaff. Here are some of the best I’ve found for language learning!

Lyrics.com

As you’d expect from the site that bagged that URL, Lyrics.com is a pretty comprehensive lyrics search engine. It boasts a wealth of international lyrics, as you can see by their hefty catalogue of Gigliola Cinquetti’s hits, for example.

Genius.com

Genius.com likewise has an impressive number of non-English language songs included in its banks. I was particularly impressed at the number of Norwegian titles they had, as you can see from their page on norsk star Anita Skorgan. For me, that’s a good barometer of how many ‘mainstream’ language songs they must have, too!

SongLyrics.com

While not quite as slick as its two cousins above, SongLyrics.com is nonetheless a good place to go if you have little luck searching elsewhere. They have a great list of tracks by French singer Alizée, for example; you’ll be warbling along to Moi… Lolita in no time.

Diggiloo Thrush

Last but not least, and it’s one I’ve sung the praises of before, it’s Diggiloo Thrush. Dislaimer: this is all about the vintage Eurovision lyrics. It’s been lovingly maintained for years now, and has original contest lyrics as well as other language versions, translations and transliterations for many non-Latin scripts. Basically a goldmine if you dream of singing along with Edyta Górniak.

For the non-initiated, this is the least transparent site name of all. If you’re wondering, it refers to Sweden’s winning entry of 1984 (Diggi-loo, Diggi-ley) and the Eurovision 1992 mascot and national bird of Sweden, the song thrush.

Singing from a Different Sheet

So there you have it; four sites to go wild with foreign language lyrics. It’s also worth nothing that the Spotify app now includes lyrics that scroll along with many popular songs. I was very chuffed to find they’d given that treatment to a favourite French pop song by a favourite French band recently, Coma Idyllique by Therapie Taxi. Merci, Spotify!

If anything is missing in the mix, though, it’s a resource to browse for lyrics – and new songs – by language. Webmasters, if you’re reading this…

The French flag flying in front of a town hall

Great French Resources for False Beginners

French and I had a pretty good start. It was the first language I learnt at school, and I wasn’t bad at it at all. It was my first taste of language learning proper, and it gave me a taste for it. By the end of school I was taking my school-leaving exams in it, along with German and Spanish. 

Yet it fell by the wayside shortly after. For whatever reason, I just left it behind, only taking German and Spanish onwards to sixth-form college. It wouldn’t be long before I’d say, quite seriously, oh no, I don’t speak French, despite getting an A in that exam.

It wasn’t for lack of opportunities. With France and Belgium on the doorstep, I’ve enjoyed and felt welcomed in francophone countries all of my life. I just got by on what I had, without bothering to make it more serviceable.

My missed chances get even more glaring that that. I’ve had a French boss and colleague for nearly 20 years, which you might think would be a green light for a language lover to go wild. But we’ve always simply used English in the office, and I’ve shied from inflicting my French on him. After all, I thought, who wants to speak with their colleague in a terrible, broken version of their native language? (Fear of mistakes – workplace edition.)

Imperfectly Perfect

I’ve got a reason to brush it up now. I have a couple of trips booked to French-speaking countries later this year. Nothing new, you might ask, we’ve been here before! If you didn’t brush up to visit then, why now?

Well, it’s partly a matter of a more mature attitude towards learning. I’m now less likely to dismiss partial knowledge; I’m less of a perfectionist. Any level of foreign language skill, no matter how scrappy, is absolutely precious. I have some French, so I’d better start looking after it!

There’s a word for this level, of course: the false beginner. That covers anything from a little knowledge, learned long ago, to a handful of holiday phrases learned here and there over the years. So where do you start as a French false beginner? Here are the most helpful ‘brush up your French books’ I’ve been using lately.

50 French Coffee Breaks

Coffee Break French was amongst the very first language podcasts when the genre started to take off. The team behind it have recently come up with a whole series of books in French, German, Italian and Spanish, all of which are perfect for those who want to brush up.

Each one features a set of short, to-the-point chapters revising both basic and intermediate grammar and vocabulary. Activities come in 5-, 10- and 15-minute flavours, making it ideal to leaf through in your spare moments. French reactivation with little time outlay.

French In Three Months

I was a big fan of Hugo’s In Three Months series back in the day. They were very clear and concise, almost doing double time as quick reference books. Nonetheless, they introduce the whole gamut of grammar, and a good deal of vocabulary too.

Now it’s DK who is flying the flag for them with a brand new look and a slightly reduced language selection. But they’re still just as snappy, and ideal for getting back into a language you might feel a bit wobbly on.

Mot à mot

Three books will be very well known to anyone who has taken A-Level French, German or Spanish in the past twenty years or so: Mot à mot, Palabra por palabra and Wort für Wort. They thematic vocabulary guides that cover a bunch of really useful conversation topics. 

But beyond that, they contain plenty of very general, useful structures as well, for expressing agreement, disagreement and other opinion ‘glue’ for speaking. Well worth a revisit.

Collins Easy Learning French Idioms

Who doesn’t like a good idiom? There have been lots of fun collections of these over the years, not least the sadly now out-of-print 101 French Idioms.

But in the absence of that, I’ve found Collins Easy Learning French Idioms a great substitute. It’s easy to dip in and out of, and features plenty of cartoon-style illustrations as aides-memoire. And it’s laid out thematically, so it’s simple to find a saying for a given occasion. Perfect to remettre les pendules à l’heure (set straight) my French.

And the Rest…

Of course, any reading you can do is going to help reinvigorate old knowledge. I’ve went hunting in Foyles last week, and availed myself of an Arsène Lupin pocket detective story, L’aiguille creuse, which I’m working my way through. It helps, of course, that Netflix has a brilliant French series, Lupin, inspired by those stories.

And that’s the dressing on this salad of false beginner’s resources – the fun stuff that you personalise to your own tastes, like films, magazines and podcasts. It’s helping get my old French back on its feet, and I hope you can do the same, too.

Who knows – I might even dare to use some in the office one of these days.

Bonne chance!

Greek microblog content from Instagram (screenshot).

The Way of the Microblog : Kitchen Sink Inspiration and Language Learning

It’s all about the foreign language microblog for me lately. Short, snappy snippets of target language piped directly to your social media streams: what’s not to love?

In fact, I’m practically drowning in them at the moment. That’s thanks to the notorious and mysterious algorithm (TM), of course, which is a fact of life these days; like one thing, and you get a ton more of the same thrown at you, for better or for worse.

Happily, in the case of us language learners, it’s generally for the better. Take my Instagram feed; its AI wisdom has decided to channel reams of Greek pop psych, heartwarming quotes and concise self help my way. It’s twee and a wee bit naff, granted. But every one of those posts is a 30-second language lesson.

This latest bite-sized adventure all started with a single Greek account, gnwmika.gr. It exclusively posts what you might call ‘fridge magnet’ content: folk wisdom and kitchen sink inspiration.

The great lesson imparted here, in true, lofty microblog style, is:

“Beautiful things will make you love life. Difficult ones will teach you to appreciate and respect the beautiful ones.”

I know – deep, eh.

Anyway, I hit follow and thought little else of it… Until things escalated. Next thing, I’m being shepherded to not only more of the same, but anything and everything Greek. Poetry, history, celebs, TV… the lot. It’s become a rabbit hole leading to some well obscure (but fascinating) places. And, crucially:

…my Greek is so much better for it!

Fill Your Little (Microblog) World Right Up

It all plays in marvellously to the fill your world with target language strategy. Since our worlds are ever more digital, one of the easiest ways to do that is to follow the monkeys out of accounts we find fun and engaging. Add one or two, and let the system start popping more and more into your suggested follows.

Now, the only catch is that the algorithm (TM) is smothering me in Greek. I’d love a bit of Gaelic, Icelandic, Norwegian or Polish (and the rest). So, if you’re reading this and have some good microblog recommendations to kick the cycle off again…

…please let me know!

A group of toy gorillas - possibly singing cartoon themes? Image from freeimages.com.

Animated Language Learning with Cartoon Themes

There’s an underexploited, rich seam of fun, bite-sized authentic materials out there. Especially if you find yourself reminiscing wistfully on your childhood television memories. Bring on the cartoon themes – in translation!

Now, I’m not talking about the big, blockbusting Disney feature animations. Those are, of course, a different subtype of this genre (and no less handy for language learning).

Instead, this is about pure nostalgia of the small-time kids’ shows of yesteryear as an engine for language learning. It’s about reliving those half-forgotten, often very modest-budget productions with some of the catchiest tunes composed for TV. Many a bored moment I’ve spent idly browsing YouTube, wondering along the lines of “what did ‘Dogtanian and the Muskahounds’ sound like in Polish?”. And yes, YouTube really does have almost everything in its cartoon themes annals. As obscure as you care you conjure up, it’s probably there.

And go on then… While we’re at it, let’s throw Disney back into the mix. Just not the big cinema headliners, but the cartoon series of decades past with some of the biggest earworms of all.

Ah, the soundtracks to our childhoods.

It’s not just a trip down memory lane, of course. It’s the geekiest (and most satisfying) of language learning party tricks to memorise the lyrics to these wee jingles, ready to reel off and impress friends and family at the slightest cue. And, like all automatic, rote memorisation tasks (like the mass sentence technique), it’s a brilliant exercise for phonetic finessing of pronunciation, accent and prosody. That’s not to mention the extra vocab you’ll pick up along the way.

Cartuneful Lyrics

Remarkably for non-pop songs, some lyrics sites even include entries for these childhood gems, like this entry for Spanish Duck Tales (or Patolandia!). Failing that, some helpful native speakers have occasionally added them in the video comments themselves, as with this upload of Gummi Bears in Greek.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to transcribe them as you hear them first, of course. They just help with some of the more magical vocabulary. No way was I going to get that “περιπέτεια συγκλονιστική” meant “astounding adventure” without help!

Remember, too, that these shows touched the hearts of so many around the world. As such, they make a lovely way to make a native speaker smile. And probably think you quite odd, too, but there’s no shame in that!

Which cartoon theme tunes are you particularly fond of? And do they exist in your target languages? Let us know in the comments!