A sundial - one way to measure the polyglot days! Image from freeimages.com

A Multilingual Manifesto : Daily Tactics for a Polyglot Plan

I’m always inspired by the work of other polyglot learners. This week, I was living for the enthusiasm in this post on working eleven active language projects into daily life. There’s inspiration if ever you needed it!

It’s not all work and no play, though. The post reminded me that keeping up your languages isn’t about interminable formal study sessions, or filling all your spare moments with strict heads-down books-open calendar scheduling. There is a place for that, of course, and many of us happily geek out over it.

But too much intensity will burn the shine off anything in the long run.

One antidote to this is to foster brief but very regular habits, or daily tactics. These draw on the trusty old little but often approach. But there’s a second, even simpler method for working this sage advice into your day: putting language in your path. Create an environment in which you naturally bump up against foreign language material in the course of your day-to-day, even when not officially studying.

Multilingual Manifesto

Setting this environment up requires just a little initial planning. It involves putting together a multilingual manifesto: a plethora of personal polyglot policies which create effortless exposure to language.

These tweaks, or displacements, help shift your focal centre to target language interactions with the media around you. Most importantly, they are dotted around, and embedded within you day. They are the kind of activities that work just as well for one or two languages as they do for handfuls of them at the same time – especially if you have both active and maintenance projects.

Here are a couple of my own personal favourites for levering in the languages almost imperceptibly!

Languages on Drip

I am a news junkie. I can’t help it – I just love knowing what’s going on. Under normal circumstances, I will be checking live UK news outlets multiple times a day. Yes, I acknowledge that this can be an unhealthy addiction in current times!

Predictably, bad news fatigue prompted me to make a change-up in my life. But this change-up could be useful; I decided that overseas, foreign-language news sources would now be my first port of call.

First, I shuffled my links and icons so that foreign sources (like the excellent NRK app from Norway) were more accessible. Next, I turned off notifications from English-language news apps, and turned on those in other languages. This is incredibly useful; I now get regular snippets popping up on my phone in multiple languages. I hear a ping, and get a little reading tester in any one of my languages. Bite-sized practice, drip-fed at regular intervals: perfect.

There’s another positive side-effect. The news is engaging again – the Fleet Street-induced media fatigue has subsided!

Subtitles and Chill

News-fixing via notifications is the perfect example of a zero effort change to make language pop up in your everyday. Another is to tweak your defaults on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Of course, the obvious (and most full-on) language learning advice for using streaming is to watch foreign language series or shows dubbed into your language(s). But that can be quite hard work, and there is actually no need to max it out all the time. Heaven knows, watching nothing but shows in a language you’re still learning can frazzle the mind.

Instead, simply switch target language subtitles on by default. That way, there is always some foreign language content in front of you, even when you just want to relax and not bombard your brain too much. Your eye will wander to the bottom of the screen now and again, catching the odd new word or interesting translation. Believe me, I’ve picked up some very interesting Polish vocab watching Star Trek Enterprise.

And of course, the full-blown, polyglot, stereo experience is always there when you’re ready for the mental gym.

Switch Your Sauces

Of course, you don’t get more everyday than food and drink. And foodies can mix it up a bit by introducing a couple of kitchen-specific personal policies.

If you regularly cook from scratch, switch your sauces… I mean, ahem, sources. Find a target language recipe book or website, and commit to find dishes from there alone. It needn’t be for every meal. But once or twice a week, banish your native language from your meal prep.

2020 saw me resurrect my old, forgotten Greek, and initially through the medium of food. Making a night a week Akis Night has been transformational (at least for my food and drink vocabulary!).

The World’s Your (Polyglot) Oyster

This trio has worked a treat for me lately. But you can find polyglot tweaks to put languages in your path in all corners of your life. From gaming, to exercise, to background chatter while you work, there are ways to study multiple languages a day yet not be studying 24/7.

So what will your multilingual manifesto look like?

Shrinking violet? You are not alone as a shy linguist! Image of flowers from freeimages.com

He Killed Them with Flowers : Remembering Vocabulary Oddly

If you’ve been following my language learning journey, you’ll know what a keen mnemonic hunter I am. I experiment with all sorts of tricks for making vocab stick, all of it involving spotting patterns and making connections between words. Some of my favourite techniques include linkword, humour and rhyme.  In essence, anything that makes a word or phrase salient – giving it the weight to stand out – is a great memory device.

Death By Flowers

I was lucky this week then, as a pair of Swahili oddities fell into my lap. It’s an unusual correspondence between two quite different words:

  • ua (flower)
  • -ua (to kill)

First of all, it got me wondering whether they were actually from the same root, but through some twisted process of meaning change, they diverged. Maybe the original sense was ‘bloom’ and ‘kill’ was some metaphoric extension meaning “cause blood to ‘bloom’ (burst forth) from the body”.

I know, I know – what a weird imagination I have. That said, the idea can’t be that weird, as the Proto-Germanic for bleed is sometimes conjectured as arising through that very same metaphor.

Digging Up The Roots

But alas, in Swahili it was too fanciful by far. As it turns out, ua and -ua come from quite separate roots in Proto-Bantu:

Clearly a lot has happened to grind those words down to the same form over the centuries. But that leaves us with a correspondence that can help us tie the two together, and ultimately recall them perfectly. For my own mental image, I’ve constructed the phrase ‘aliwaua na maua‘ (he killed them with flowers), which neatly fulfils the bizarreness criteria for salient vocab memories. Oh – and it rhymes, too! I won’t forget either of those words in a hurry now.

The moral of the tale? Look out for oddities and weird coincidences in your target languages. They’re a gift for making lasting vocab memories.

Christmas is coming! Make it a language learning one.

Christmas Gifts for Language Lovers : 2020 Edition

It’s here again! And if you’re struggling for Christmas gifts for language-loving friends (or yourself!), you’re in the right place. Let me fill you in on a couple of the more exciting goodies 2020 has to offer.

Virtual Christmas

2020 was the year that Virtual Reality became portable and affordable. And the fantastic Oculus 2 Quest headset is more than just a fancy gaming device – it has real potential for language learners.

Whether for roaming far-off locations in Wander, or adventuring in German, Japanese, Spanish or more, it’s a whole new world out there. And given the year we’ve all had, getting out and about virtually might be just what the doctor ordered.

More Books (Because… Well, Books!)

Every year, there are always a few juicy new titles out for language lovers. This year saw the expansion of the quite wonderful “Short Stories In…” series by Olly Richards, including Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish. An absolute dream for Nordic nerds like me!

Even more excitingly, they are available as audiobooks from Audible, making them perfect reading and listening pairs for learners. For next year’s Christmas list, I’m asking Language Santa for versions in Greek and Polish, please…

Disney+ Subscription

Consuming media translated into our target languages has long been a favourite pastime in the polyglot community. I’ve lost count of how many fellow linguists have enjoyed the Harry Potter books in multiple translations.

Disney, too, is a frequent favourite – and who doesn’t love a cute Disney animated classic? Lucky for us, then, that Disney+ makes them available with a generous selection of foreign language soundtracks. Plenty more, in fact, than Netflix seems to offer on its range of shows.

It’s my mum’s gift to the family this year (thanks Mum!), and already I’ve been getting lost in the likes of Norwegian Aladdin, German Beauty and the Beast and more. Happy, cutesy, language Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

However you spend this year’s holiday, have a wonderful one. I’ll be spending a good chunk of the downtime on my languages, as I’m sure most of us will. Well, that, and the odd mince pie. Merry Christmas!

Oculus Quest 2 : Screenshot of a street in Rome in the Wander app

Oculus Quest 2 : Virtual Language Hopping

You can bend almost anything to language learning. And this week, I’ve been using that excuse to justify numerous hours of VR gaming.

I recently gave in to my curiosity and plumped for an Oculus Quest 2 headset. Admittedly, it’s not my first foray into virtual reality. The technology has been edging into the mainstream for a couple of years now, and I got an early shot at it when a colleague – way ahead of me on the curve – brought his gear into the Linguascope office at the end of last year.

It blew my mind.

There’s something inspiringly sea change about it. I was in awe – you pop on that headset, and it just feels like the future. To put that into perspective, I grew up watching the likes of Back to the Future Part II, with its crazy holographic shark heads, and Tron, which placed players in the game. Those childhood fantasies were finally here.

That said, while playing it in the office, it wasn’t the footloose and fancy-free dash into the virtual sunlit uplands just yet. The tech seemed nascent, rather than ready. I was put off by the clunkiness, the wired nature of the headset, the need for a separate computer to run it.

Oculus Quest changed all of that.

It’s not only light, portable and powerful. It has some fantastic draws for language learning aficionados.

Oculus Quest 2 : Wander

Of course, VR has incredible potential to transform language learning directly through purpose-made applications. Mondly were the first to develop a language app for the Oculus platform, with an immersive conversation simulator. Sadly it remains available only for the older Rift headset.

In fact, the winning hook on the Quest 2 isn’t a language app, or even a regular, run-of-the-mill game in a foreign language. Rather, it’s the immersive Google Street View experience, Wander, that has me billing and cooing (in various languages).

The idea is incredibly simple: place the user within a 3D, virtual rendering of Google’s vast, extensive VR mapping of the world. The winning feature for us language bods is the fact that signage is everywhere, particularly in the cities. Wherever people gather, there is a wealth of material to read and decipher.

Japanese signage in Tokyo seen on Google Street View

Japanese signage in Tokyo seen on Google Street View

I must say that the virtual escape is hugely welcome in the year of the lockdown. Forget cheap getaways – how about no getaways? Wander had me exploring all of my old favourites. Berlin, Oslo, Reykjavik – the nostalgia was soaring, and the language was, comfortingly, all over the place. Street signs, shop windows, billboards – it had me feeling that language learner travel buzz all over again.

But it doesn’t stop at the familiarly far-flung. A particularly fun feature is ‘Random’, redubbed ‘Guess the Language’ (by me). Click it to be transported to anywhere in the world. Your mission? Find a signpost or billboard, and try to guess from the text where you are. My favourite so far has to be Kalaallisut (it almost stumped me, it did).

Hours of fun, my friends.

Gaming Proper

Gaming, of course, has long been open to a blend with language learning through conventional play options. Notably, Apple Arcade is bursting with goodies for linguists. Likewise, Oculus Quest has copious titles available to play in multiple languages. Spice and Wolf is an immersive experience available in Chinese (both varieties) and Japanese. Or if you prefer a bit of action, bestseller POPULATION: ONE allows you to play in French, German, Japanese, Korean or Spanish. Fire up those dictionaries!

As for me, I’m off to play a bit more BeatSaber just now. And if get any further into those BTS tunes, I’m going to be ordering Colloquial Korean at some point soon.

Lots of question marks. Don't be afraid to ask questions! Image by Kerbstone, FreeImages.com

Stupid Questions : Learn to Love Getting Stuff Wrong

“There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.” That nugget of wisdom, often attributed to Carl Sagan, reminds us to keep seeking knowledge, even if we make (sometimes very public) mistakes.

And nothing feels more public and exposed than whole group or class teaching. That gut-churning anticipation will be familiar to most of us. Waiting your turn to speak in front of your peers, especially on new subjects we are only just getting to grips with, can really bring out the sweats!

Back into the Fray

Lately, I’ve had to contend with it all again myself. I’ve side-stepped back into uni study with a brand new subject. Exciting, but just a bit scary when you’re in a class with others who seem so confident and clued up already. 

No matter that the group is just ten or so fellow students. The pressure to get it right and sound, at least vaguely, like I know what I’m talking about, feels immense each session. I listen closely, half-formulate a handful of ideas, but feel afraid to let them out. Maybe it will just be incoherent babble? Maybe I will be outed as the one in class who doesn’t quite get it? If I ask my stupid questions, will my cover be blown?

By the time I’ve worked out what I’ll say, how I’ll say it, and somehow found the nerve to try, somebody else has taken the mic.

Lessons from Languages

I’d have left it at that, perhaps, struggling along with my impostor syndrome, if it hadn’t been for the flip-side of that very experience at the same time. For as well as that brand new subject, I also started a course in something totally new, but also very familiar: a language learning class.

That language is Swahili, a language which is quite a departure for me. Now, I have zero experience with Bantu languages. Nearly all my language learning experience is with Indo-European tongues. In short, I come to class with very little pre-knowledge – much like my other course above.

The difference?

I have no fear speaking out and asking questions – even if I’m not 100% sure of myself!

Any Questions?

So there I was, every week, dreading my non-language class, whilst looking forward to my conversation class in equal measure. I had to get to the bottom of this to garner some tips to carry over to the other class. I needed to find out what was so different about Swahili class. And it is something very particular to language learning:

Embracing the art of getting it wrong.

After years of evenings classes and iTalki lessons, I’m used to just giving it a go. I try to speak up whenever I can, even if what I say isn’t perfect. Chiefly, it’s wanting to make the most of the chance to communicate, which is the joy of learning together. We throw things out there – they may not be perfectly formed – but then, with the instructor, we bash them around until they start to take on a neater shape.

With languages in particular, there is that extra veil of difficulty. It’s the notion that languages are generally just a bit harder, a bit more challenging. After all, they involve whole new ways of communicating. That challenge somehow makes us more accepting of the fact that we’ll stumble repeatedly. But in reality, those other subjects that scare us are also new ways to communicate too. We shouldn’t be surprised if they also take some trial and error.

Accepting that makes the whole business of asking questions – whether you think they are stupid or not – a lot less high stakes.

Get Stuff Wrong!

So how to take this forward? Remember that nobody expects perfection from students. After all, if students were perfect, there would be no need for classes and professors. If you’ve done the lesson prep and homework, you have more than enough to guide your questions and contributions.

This isn’t about simply not caring whether you’re right or wrong. Rather, it’s finding the fun and utility in getting things wrong. When we make mistakes, we laugh about them in class. Not malicious or mean laughter, but a knowing giggle – yes, it’s funny to mix up the words for mango and person, but we’ll never forget them again after that.

Learn to love getting stuff wrong – those stupid questions are actually a fast track to improvement.

An image of someone washing their hands by maripepa m, freeimages.com. Authentic resources on health topics are easy to come by in times of Covid-19.

Language Love in Times of Covid : Authentic Resources in Translation

Authentic resources in the target language are vital exposure to improve your skills. And during a public crisis, it just so happens that topical materials are even easier to come across.

Namely, there is an abundance of brief, to-the-point and free publications on the Covid-19 pandemic right now. You can find them on the sites of official bodies like government health agencies and local authorities. Just like political manifestos and mail-shots, they are a good source of vocabulary if you find yourself talking about these topics in lessons. Certainly, I am finding that the subject crops with dogged regularity in my 2020 conversation classes.

And I have to admit, talking about it – in any language – helps to get my head around it.

So how to source these informational nuggets?

Information Hunting

You can seek out government information material anywhere where there is a sizeable community language presence. Initially, a simple Google search like “Covid-19 posters PDF” plus the country of your choice will more than suffice. After that, you will find yourself clicking through a rabbit warren of links to downloadable PDFs.

And they are there in numbers. In the US, official Spanish resources are extremely widely available. This page of Covid-19 informational materials offers a Spanish option for almost everything. But many other minority languages are represented, especially when there is a large diaspora community in a country. For instance, in Australia, a large Greek community means the same kinds of material are downloadable in Greek. Swahili, too, features quite frequently in US materials, like this Covid-19 poster. In fact, the Centre for Disease Control in America lists a dizzying array of languages on this page (select ‘Filter by Language’)

Authentic resources on Covid-19 in Polish - an NHS poster about washing hands.

Polish NHS poster on fighting Covid-19, downloaded via manchester.gov.uk

The Double Benefit of Authentic Resources in Translation

A key benefit of public information resources is that they are short and snappy. For beginner to intermediate learners, there is a lot to be taken from them without the sense of being overwhelmed by a huge authentic text. 

So why not just go straight to the source, and find materials from the target language country itself?

Well, the big bonus is that these documents are usually just one-to-one translations of the original English documents. That means you have a ready-made cross-reference source to check your comprehension of the target language. Look at them side by side, and compare the vocabulary and structures used, without having to second-guess or scrabble for a dictionary.

For certain, we live in difficult, frightening times. But authentic resources can be a great talking therapy, as well as a language learning boost.

Good luck, and stay safe!

Perfectionism pushes us to strive for order, but perhaps a little chaos is sometimes helpful. Image from freeimages.com

Perfectionism and the Control Monster

Perfectionism is a wily demon. And it stalks the language learning community with a particularly bloodthirsty enthusiasm.

Halloween seems the perfect time to address this perfidious little monster lurking in our midst. For while it can tempt us to embrace it, driving us towards mastery (mainly through fear), it can make us very inflexible, too.

Perfectionism is an extension of a need for control. Control, in fact, is so integral to the perfectionist’s outlook, that it features as a defining characteristic for perfectionists as far back at Cattell’s famed personality questionnaire. As such, perfectionists find it really threatening when unpredictable outside variables are added to the mix.

And the most unpredictable? Other people.

The Perfectionism Challenge

Imagine my butterflies, then, when I, a self-confessed and chronic perfectionist, learned that I had to work with someone else on an academic assessment recently. The horror, the horror. And just as I cynically predicted, my random partner wasn’t a carbon copy of me. Different priorities, different attitudes, different approach… Wringing my hands in despair, I cast a glance to the sky a let out a shrill whyyyyyyyyy?

Early signs set off all of my alarms. I contacted my partner ten days in advance of the deadline; my partner preferred to leave it until the deadline was upon us. I wanted to break the task into chunks and work out a plan; my partner preferred a more organic, on-the-spot approach. This did not bode well, I thought.

You know what, though? It somehow came together.

The fact that we ended up with something coherent and submissible made me question my own stress and hyper-focus leading up to the task. There was something even a bit – dare I say it – more human about the result, which it might have lacked if it had been robotically perfect. Could it be that I might sometimes take things too seriously for my own good?

Perish the thought!

Bursting Bubbles

We do need our bubbles bursting once in a while. Being closed off to outside influence isn’t a good recipe for personal growth. And grow, we did: we grafted together a piece of work that was unique, rather than a continuation of the same old theme.

The end product demonstrated more than just an ability to memorise and regurgitate foreign language material. It showed an ability to communicate, in all its messy glory. After all, by its nature, language learning is about communicating with others. It could be just what the doctor ordered to get a dose of good old chaos now and again.

It’s no surprise that perfectionism and learner independence go hand in hand. But leave a door open to the rest of the world, too.

Triangulation - a polyglot approach to language learning. Image by Nils Thingvall, FreeImages.com

Everyday Triangulation : Three Sides to Every Language Story

A study colleague popped up in our group forum this week, sharing an interesting resource. It was a set of quiz flashcards for the current term’s Swahili vocabulary. But it came with a triangulation twist. It was a Swahili-Spanish set, rather than Swahili-English.

Triangulation – learning one of your foreign languages through another, rather than your first – is nothing new, of course. A beloved technique of polyglotters, it can be an easy, quick-win strategy to learn and maintain / strengthen skills at the same time. Many readily available resources support it, too. Both Duolingo and Glossika have options for learning via a different base language.

The assumption is often that it works best with quite different language pairs, like my colleague’s Swahili-Spanish set. There is certainly a logic to this, as some might expect possible counter-interference with closely related languages. I’ve certainly got some good use out of Langenscheidt’s Polish course for German speakers (a slightly more updated version of my ancient copy is available here!).

Close Triangulation

That said, triangulating with close language pairs does come with a unique advantage. Namely, it shines a bright light on false friends and misleading pairs, which might otherwise remain invisible if English is the medium to learn both.

Take Norwegian and Icelandic, for example. There is an apparent cognate in Icelandic líka and Norwegian like. However, they mean different things: also and alike respectively. If you learn both languages via English, the two will never come into contact with other (at least in your mind), and that discrepancy will remain in the dark. Well, at least until you confuse them in conversation with a native speaker (yes: guilty!).

However, if you create a set of learning resources in Icelandic and Norwegian that makes explicit this (dis)connection, you have a head start.

The same happens with words that are cognates, but slightly overlap in usage. For instance, Icelandic and Norwegian have the cognates sem and som. These can both be used as relative pronouns (the dog that I saw, the doctor that treated me and so on). However, Norwegian som can also be used for the comparing like, as in noen som ham (someone like him). In Icelandic, that doesn’t work at all. Instead, you have to use the term eins og, giving us einhvern eins og hann for the same phrase. It’s exceptionally tricky to learn that distinction if you learn Icelandic and Norwegian through English, but separately from each other.

Triangulating Existing Resources

Great, if you are just starting out, you might say. But what if you are already halfway down the road? By the time I realised the benefit of triangulating Iceland and Norwegian, I already had a ton of English-based Anki flashcards in separate decks for each one. Starting a third set for Icelandic-Norwegian was a less than fun prospect. It felt like treading the same ground all over again.

Tech tools to the rescue, though. There are some clever tricks you can play with your existing data sets to create triangulated versions without starting over. This export / collation technique using Anki and Excel, for example, produces a merged list than can then, in turn, be used to create a fresh Anki deck.

Aside from that, auditing via Excel is a great way to check what you know in one of your languages but not the other.

 

Building Blocks. Image by Jeff Prieb, FreeImages.com.

Building Blocks for Faster Fluency

The highlight of my language learning week was a short, spontaneous dialogue in Swahili. Before I get too big for my boots, I should add that it was about buying bananas, and wasn’t based on fact. Rather, it was invented on the spot in a university conversation class. But the point is, I coped with spontaneous conversation after just two or three weeks of learning a language. You can too – it’s all down to building blocks.

So what is a building blocks approach to language learning? It might be best to define it first by what it is not. Learning via building blocks is the opposite of rote phrase learning. Instead of static, clunky chunks, it focuses on mastering a limited but optimal set of words and phrases to combine in multiple permutations of useful sentences.

It’s not quite the same as learning an exhaustive grammar of a language, which is the longer-term route to manipulating language spontaneously, rather than relying on stock phrases. The difference is that building blocks learning focuses on efficiency, favouring the most useful bits and pieces to get you up and running super quickly.

Ready-Made Building Blocks

Unsurprisingly. whole language learning techniques have been built on the principle of shuffling basic blocks around. One of the most familiar from the bookshops is the Michel Thomas method. These use a chatty student-teacher format to gradually introduce simple building blocks, and invite the student to play around with the cumulative result. As such, the real skill students gain is the art of sentence creation on the fly, rather than plain old parroting. I’ve found them fantastic introductions that get students communicating in full, novel sentences extremely quickly.

Recently – big thanks once again to the lovely folk on the polyglot social media circuit – I found out about a whole bunch of free, enthusiast-authored courses that also follow this magic blocks system. The Language Transfer channel on YouTube hosts a whole set of language courses, from the author’s native Greek to – yes, you guessed it – Swahili. They take a model learner through a whole set of jigsaw pieces to spark immediate, spontaneous communicating.

Custom Blocks

So how did the building blocks approach play out in my Swahili class, and why was it so effective?

Swahili verbs lend themselves to a ‘slot machine’, or ‘lego’ type approach, as our tutor likes to put it. You can easily swap in and out a very regular set of morphemes for person and tense. Knowing just ni- (I), u- (you), a- (he/she), and -li-/-na-/-ta- (past, present and future tense markers), plus a handful of verb stems, a learner can express a huge amount in Swahili. This is the ‘permutation strategy’ that makes knowing just a little bit of language very productive. And every language has hooks like this.

The Swahili example shows building blocks at the tiny end of the scale, working with little bits of words. At the other end, larger chunks like ‘opinion blocks’ can be a great boost. In Greek, for example, I like to chat with my tutors about what’s going on in the world. A hefty topic, you might think. But in reality, it’s enough to have a stock ‘building set’ of a few phrases such as “I like …“, “I don’t agree…“, “… annoys me” and so on. Like those Swahili lego bricks, you can build whole conversations out of those spare parts.

Banana Split

The proof of the pudding – or the bananas, in my case – is in the eating. I’m really pleased at how much I managed to say in Swahili after a couple of weeks of this process. And it’s all down to those building blocks, and an effective teacher who makes great use of the technique.

If you’re about to start a new language, consider giving one of those courses a try. And if you’re struggling to improve your conversation in an existing skill, try chunking it up a bit into home-made building blocks. You will simply go bananas at your progress.

Owls chatting. Photo by Ross Dismore, freeimages.com

Battle of the Owls: Duolingo vs. Glossika

You have to hand it to the owls.

For a start, they’re wise. And they love learning. Well, at least in educational lore, having long been considered symbols of all things academic. They make very apt representatives for our language learning knowledge quests. Little wonder then, that two popular language platforms, Duolingo and Glossika, have adopted our feathered friends as their respective mascots.

On the surface they might not appear particularly alike. Different breeds of owl, if you like. But the contrasting plumage hides a strong family resemblance. In fact, their approaches to teaching languages are very similar. Both teach via a vast bank of sample sentences, incorporating spaced repetition techniques to lodge vocab and structures in memory. Both platforms employ a similar listen-read-type system to drill three of the four core language learning skills. And both offer an impressive (and growing) array of languages. For their different colours, those owls are quite alike (although we’re sure they would deny it vociferously!).

So, in a battle of the owls, who comes out on top?

Pricing

Let’s get this one out of the way first: they follow very different access models. All Duolingo content is free to access, with a paid tier to remove ads if required. Those ads aren’t too intrusive, however, simply sandwiched between lessons.

On the other hand, Glossika is subscription-based. The price tag of up to $30 a month will seem like a hefty price for many. That said, there always seems to be some discount code floating around the internet for Glossika, so with save with some internet sleuthing. Students can also get special pricing of $13.50 a month.

Glossika has an extra-special secret, though. Minority languages under a degree of threat are completely free to learn. In fact, Glossika’s free Gaelic course was the route that led me to the platform in the first place. In addition, you can learn Catalan, Hakka (Hailu and Sixian), Kurdish, Manx, Taiwanese Hokkien, Welsh and Wenzhounese (Wu) via the technique for not a penny. These are full courses, featuring the same sentence set as the platform’s mainstream languages. 

🦉 Free is hard to beat, but Glossika’s admirable ethos of supporting endangered languages makes this one a draw.

Mass Sentences

Arguably, the price of Glossika is justified by its quite unique offering. Namely, its bank of thousands of sentences per language are no arbitrary choice. They represent high-frequency vocabulary and language patterns that support fluency training. It is a purposeful, statistics-driven mass-sentence technique.

In the face of this, Duolingo’s approach certainly feels a little more random. One of the frequent criticisms levelled at the platform target its plethora of often silly and whacky example sentences. It depends on the learner, of course. Personally, I love the strange and bizarre phrases that crop up in Duolingo exercises. They make for a greater salience in the learning material, and salience is the friend of memory.

And we should consider another aspect here: Glossika rolls out more or less the same set of sentences for every language. One the one hand, this is great for keeping your languages in sync as a kind of language audit. On the other, it leads to some minor irritations. For example, names and places are not translated, which is a missed opportunity to introduce some cultural material. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve silently cursed when having to type Ταϊπέι (Taipei) into Glossika in Greek.

By comparison, Duolingo fully embraces difference. The recent Finnish course, for example, celebrates uniquely local terms like sisu, and introduces a raft of common Finnish names. Likewise, the Norwegian and Swedish courses are celebrated by fans for their wry take on Scandinavian life. Of course, the fresh take on every language does mean that the courses do not match up in any shape or form. Trying to keep your polyglot knowledge in sync? You’re on your own.

🦉 Close, but let’s call that one another draw. This race is neck-and-neck!

Order, Order!

Mass-sentence cramming makes no sense without a clear progression in level. Both platforms steer the user through a well-defined path that increases in difficulty. However, Duolingo allows for a bit of freedom in user choice. Learners can progress to the next topic after levelling up to just the first of five experience levels (although many of us prefer to gold them up first).

Glossika, on the other hand, is less flexible; you have to work the list of sentences through exactly as the program intends. There is some leeway, though. You can choose to start at any of Glossika’s language-ladder checkpoints. If the basics are too simple, skip ahead to B1 – simple. What’s more, you can choose to ignore sentences you deem unhelpful or not useful as you work through them.

Glossika’s one-size-fits-all ethos is its undoing again here, though. As the sentence corpus is ordered identically for each language, you end up seeing quite complex structures in certain languages very early on. The reason simply seems to be that languages more recently added to the platform map differently onto English compared to Glossika’s original set of languages. Thus, they lack the one-to-one, simple correspondence to basic phrases in English that these first languages have in the beginners’ levels.

In A1 Gaelic, for example, some complex, idiosyncratic structures pop up within the first hundred sentences. Unlike languages like French and Spanish, Gaelic does not use a standard, vanilla verb for ‘to know’. Instead, periphrastic structures are used. The relatively straightforward English sentence “I know lots of people” is rendered in Glossika’s translation as “Is aithne dhomsa tòrr dhaoine” (literally, knowledge is to me of many people). There is no explanation of how this structure works – it is simply presented as is. However, it encompasses features like prepositional pronouns and the genitive case, which probably belong in intermediate-level grammar material. In contrast, Duolingo units are generally tailored to language-specific grammar points, with accompanying notes on usage.

🦉 I declare this a win for the green owl.

Error Catching

The two platforms have a wholly different take on error catching, too. Duolingo is the more forgiving of the two, allowing the odd typo in an answer. Glossika takes a much stricter approach, demanding exact spelling, accurate diacritics and even on-point punctuation before accepting an answer. Which side you take in this battle depends on how much a stickler for perfection you are.

One minor niggle, however, is Glossika’s pickiness for speech marks. To my mind, punctuation is of least concern when learning a language. However, leave out a comma, or use an exclamation mark instead of a full-stop, and Glossika marks an answer incorrect. It can be incredibly frustrating to repeat an exercise because of this.

In short, I find myself in the middle of this debate. Duolingo is a bit too forgiving; I’ve noticed it accept some quite liberal interpretations of Gaelic spelling! On the other hand, Glossika seems like a rather mean master at times.

Helping hands

Glossika pulls it all back with one nifty quirk, though: you can leave accents out. Purists will throw their hands up in horror at the very thought. But in the very early stages of learning, this can be a real boon. It’s hard enough for a beginner to remember where the accents come in  “στον σιδηροδρομικό σταθμό” (to the railway station) without stressing about stressing!

Glossika also edges ahead on alternative input. Some Duolingo courses in non-Latin alphabet languages allow for Latin alpha input, but support is not always complete, as with Greeklish. Conversely, Latin keyboard support is solid across Glossika’s language offerings. And even within Latin alphabet languages, there are helping hands – you can substitute Icelandic ð with d and þ with th, if you really struggle with foreign keyboard layouts, for example.

Of course it makes sense, in the long run, to learn how to type in Greek, Russian and so on. But it’s nice to have the option to get off to a quicker start.

🦉 The owls are evenly matched here, it seems, but they could both learn from each other.

Voices

With listening skills being, for many, the biggest challenge in language learning, speech is everything. How platforms approach the production of native sounds can be a deal-clincher.

Glossika is exclusively human in this respect. Every recording is a native speaker. That is an important consideration for many learners, who prefer human voices over digital text-to-speech. Usually, the same speaker narrates the whole course, but on other courses (Polish, for example), different voice artists are used.

The downside to that, of course, is that sometimes, a voice will grate. As for me, I’m not overly keen on the choice of Icelandic voice. On the other hand, I find the Greek voice is really neutral and pleasant to listen to. It is very much pot luck.

On the other side of the coin, we have text-to-speech, which has come a long way since its early days. Duolingo makes a lot of use of this technology in many of its courses (although some, like Gaelic, Irish and Swahili, still use recordings of human speakers). The benefit to TTS is a smooth, very neutral voice in the target language, as opposed to occasionally, decidedly hit-and-miss recordings in the others. And the digital standard has not stood still – recently, the platform updated its Norwegian and Polish voices, which both now sound even more natural.

🦉 A lot of this is down to personal preference. Yet another draw?

Community

Finally, the true mettle of a platform may well lie in its users. And – spoiler alert – here is where Duolingo plays a real blinder.

Duolingo’s forum has always been a lively place, thanks largely to its armies of users. But the outfit makes particularly clever use of this by layering the forum on top of the actual content. Every single sentence is linked to a discussion thread where users can talk and ask question about it. An active bunch of moderators keep tabs on everything, which means that it’s never long before you get that explanation you really need to understand a structure. The result is an incredibly finely granulated repository of learning content. Kudos to the platform for spotting the potential of that.

Now, Glossika does have a well-maintained blog, which is open for comments and discussion, as well as a Facebook user group. But the level of interaction achieved on Duolingo is hard to beat.

🦉 Hands down, Duolingo won this match.

Joining Forces

Despite that last resounding victory, I have to admit it: those owls are pretty evenly matched on the whole. No twit (twoo) here. Duolingo and Glossika do similar things in subtly different ways, and thereby manage to complement each other nicely. That’s the reason both of them are essential items in my own daily language learning tactics.

And perhaps that is the ultimate lesson to learn in all of this. By joining forces and creating an app arsenal, we are much more likely to smash those language learning goals. The moral of the tale?

Two owls are always better than one.

What are your favourite aspects of these platforms? Or do you combine other apps that complement each other in similar ways? Let us know in the comments!

– no background info on each translation, which is problematic – for example, are we learning polite or familiar ‘you’ in some sentences?
+ presented with several ways to say the same thing – some say that shows real mastery! From Gaelic, for example, a’ sileadh and an t-uisge, snog and gasta, acrach and an t-acras air, sìde and aimsir.