An owl. Probably not the Duolingo one, but I'm sure they're friends. (Image from freeimages.com)

Building linguistic muscle memory with Duolingo

I achieved not quite a lifelong dream this week. Let’s call it a months-long dream. I finally reached level 25 in German on Duolingo!

When the moment of glory came, it was more with a fizzle than with fireworks. As the XP points ticked over, the ‘points to next’ level disappeared, a simple XP counter in its place. I won’t pretend I wasn’t quite chuffed secretly, though.

But hang on! Can’t I already speak German? As my strongest foreign language, what was I doing thrashing through levels and levels of a beginner to intermediate course? Of course, besides the gamified pride of having that shiny 25 next to the language on my Duolingo profile.

Well, fluency is never a done deal. Even our strongest languages need maintenance work to keep them in shape. And what started as a curious exploration of Duolingo’s German course showed me how useful it can be to use lower-level learner drill tools to reinforce your skills as a fluent speaker. Convinced of the benefits, I’m now using it to blitz Norwegian, another of my more confident languages.

So why is Duolingo so useful?

A Duolingo leaderboard

A Duolingo leaderboard

Muscle memory

Muscle memory, or motor learning, is the process by which certain skills become automatic and unthinking through repetition. You know the kind of thing: playing scales on a piano, using a computer keyboard, operating the controls of a car. They are tasks that we perform so often that they just happen on some level below consciousness.

Proficient language use has a component of this, too. As we become more and more familiar with the patterns of a language, we form grammatically sound phrases ever more automatically. After years of learning French, German or Spanish, you no longer have to think about gendered articles, for example. At some point you just get it.

The key routes to achieving this language ‘muscle memory’ are exposure and repetition. And Duolingo exercises have that by the truckload. That green owl has prepared hundreds and hundreds of sentences, each selected as an example of idiomatic, grammatically correct usage.

Automating those little details

The upshot of this is that you can work on automating those annoying little details that always trip you up, even in your strong languages. For example,  learning phrases to express date and time are a pet hate of mine as a learner. When speaking quickly, I am still tempted to use the equivalent of the English preposition, which is often not the same in the target language.

Take Norwegian as an example. To express duration where English uses ‘for’, the language uses i (in), such as ‘i fem uker’ (for five weeks). Even after years of working on my Norwegian, it can be hard to stifle that anglophone twitch to use ‘for’ instead of ‘i’.

Cue Duolingo’s Time topic. After bashing out exercise after exercise containing solid Norwegian time phrases, they are starting to come more naturally now. Bad habits start to break down; the brain is getting trained.

It is not just the brain, either. After typing thousands of characters of target language, the fingers start to instinctively know how to form the special characters on the keyboard. No more clumsy fiddling for å, ø or any of their kin!

Duolingo and the lost details

Fluency is not the summit of a perfectly formed mountain. It is easy to sit proudly atop your language mastery and assume that you simply have it covered. Especially the basics.

Hold your horses! Duolingo surprised me by throwing up some shockers that I had forgotten over the years. The gender of Euro and Cent in German (both der, by the way). The correct word for employ or hire (einstellen, not anstellen as I’d been assuming for years). They’re little things, and they would barely impede comprehension. But those lost details make the difference between sounding like a learner and sounding like someone who has really got a grip on the language.

Duolingo has even being training the sloppiness out of my language habits. Learning Norwegian as a German speaker can be incredibly handy, since the languages are fairly close. However, assuming similarity can result in mistakes. Using Duolingo on both of them has thrown up some surprising discrepancies in the gender of cognates between the two languages. Just look at these:

🇳🇴 🇩🇪
cinema kinoen masculine das Kino neuter
keyboard tastaturet neuter die Tastatur feminine
library biblioteket neuter die Bibliothek feminine
mind sinnet neuter der Sinn masculine
sugar sukkeret neuter der Zucker masculine

Where I would previously assume the Norwegian gender was identical to the German, I now know better. Duolingo exercises gave me a systematic arena to find that out. Without it, it might have taken me an age to come across them by chance. No more blindly relying on German for my Norwegian details!

Need for speed…

Many of Duolingo’s activities are translation-based. And a key benefit of this for already proficient linguists is the development of lightning-speed gist translation.

Understanding gist, or the general essence, of a sentence quickly is a key skill for operating seamlessly in a foreign language. Life moves quickly, and we must often act swiftly to keep pace. By adding a timed element to these exercises in its random test feature, Duolingo encourages learners to understand quickly. And true enough, after some time using the platform, you will find yourself getting faster and faster on the keyboard.

Challenge yourself to a few random quizzes (via the dumbbell icon in the app). See how quickly you can translate via a glance at the native language prompt or single listen to the spoken phrase, and work on extending that gist brain. Dictation exercises are also excellent for training you ear to catch things quickly, especially in languages with elision, where words can seem to blur into one another.

Interestingly, translation drilling is a feature of the platform that may well be more useful to language maintainers than learners. Although mass sentence approaches can be incredibly useful for increasing your exposure, pure translation is probably not most efficient sole learning method. The threshold of conversational fluency might be just the right time to jump into Duolingo’s testing tool.

…but recognising road bumps

Travelling the same paths over and over again is a good opportunity to spot where there are potholes. And through regular muscle memory training on Duolingo, you soon find out what your own weaknesses are.

A major lesson for me relates to what psychologist Daniel Kahnemann has called fast and slow thinking. These relate to the two tracks of thought processing humans are hypothesised to have. The first is a snappy, gut-instinct decision making brain based on heuristics or patterns. Its complement is a more careful, deliberating one.

When you start speed translating for gist training, you may be tempted to jump the gun and answer too quickly at first. Perhaps a similar, but slightly different sentence appeared on the screen two minutes ago. Your fast-thinking, pattern-spotting brain might catch only the similar part, remember the answer to the previous sentence, and enter that instead of checking the whole thing. At first, this would happen frequently with me – oops.

With plenty of practice, though, you can train your brain to engage its more deliberated mode whilst still maintaining speed. In essence, it is a lesson in “don’t assume anything”, and a good counterbalance to the speed translation kick.

Learning is a journey, not an outcome

It is tempting to see learning as something with an endpoint. But a commitment to a language involves regular maintenance and audits, which can be hard to put into play if you live outside your target countries.

There may be a hint of polyglot snobbery around using beginner to intermediate tools like Duolingo. But the opportunity these offer for stocktaking and strengthening existing pathways is too good to miss. And sometimes, going back to basics can just be fun, especially when it is gamified!

Already have a strong language amongst the Duolingo courses? Join the XP chase, schedule a daily drill, and see what levelling up can do for you.

A stash of tourist leaflets and guides in various foreign languages.

Lovely Leaflets: Making the most of foreign language tourist ephemera

What have I been doing this week? Well, apart from obsessing over topping Duolingo’s new global leaderboards? Mostly, I’ve been hacking my way through reams of foreign language leaflets and tourist material I’ve amassed over the past few months of travel.

Despite a fixation with order and decluttering, I have to  admit that I let the piles of paper mount up. When faced with racks of foreign language material on holiday, my eyes light up. I can’t help but feast on the freebies. From talking to fellow polyglots, I am certainly not alone.

So how can we feed our fascination, but ensure we make the most of these fun, free resources?

Scrapbooking is your space-saving friend

First things first: these things take up room!

“Kiitos” (thanks) on a grocery bag from a Helsinki supermarket. Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

A trip to Finland resulted in bags of extra material in Finnish and Swedish!

The fact is that few of us have room to store wads and wads of paper from a lifetime of travelling. We call this kind of material ephemera for a reason: it is not meant to hang around long.

As a teacher, I would store authentic materials like this to use in lessons. The physical resources actually had a use. Now, as a learner, my instinct might still be to hoard them, but most of the time they simply end up lying around. It is far too easy to forget about your stash of leaflets. My cache has often sat, forgotten, in a side pocket of my suitcase for weeks.

The good news: this is what digital scrapbooking was made for. I use digital scrapbooks to create snapshots of all sorts of cultural ephemera from trips. Leaflets fit the bill perfectly.

Scrapbooking tools

You can get started with any note-taking software or app. Create a document, snap your items, and annotate.  My tool of choice is the brilliant Evernote. But Microsoft OneNote is perhaps even better for the task, since you can position image elements more freely on each page. Most importantly, both platforms are free to use at entry level.

Alternatively, document scanning apps can capture your material and turn it into PDFs. I use Scanner Pro on iOS, but there are many alternatives across platforms, including free apps like Adobe Scan. Most of these apps will also hook up to online drives like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive, making sure your material is backed up safely.

Leaflets captured, you can safely offload the originals into the bin. But remember to recycle!

How to work with leaflets as learning resources?

To make our leaflet-foraging worthwhile, we need to actively use these resources. And the great thing about digitally storing your leaflets is that we can simply type your notes and workings straight into the same documents that contain the scans. Nice and tidy!

There are myriad activities and approaches for active consumption of the material. The trick is to be as creative as you can with them to eke out the most benefit. Here are a few simple exercises for starters:

Vocabulary mining

The simplest activity is simply mining the material for new words and phrases. If you are still at a more elementary stage of the language, focus on the titles and headings. At a more advanced stage, you can introduce grammar tasks such as highlighting all the verbs or other parts of speech. Interrogate that material for as much new knowledge as you can.

Translation

Try to produce an idiomatic, flowing translation of the material in your native language. Note where it is necessary to express the ideas quite differently from language to language. Are there phrases that are difficult to reproduce exactly in your own?

Play the interpreter

Imagine you are taking a group of friends or family to the attraction. Read or skim the material a section at a time. Then, put it down between each reading and interpret the gist out loud, from memory, in your native language. This is great practice for actually performing the task for real-life travel companions!

In your own words

A real test of language mastery is creative production. Can you say the same thing in several ways? Paraphrasing and summarising are fantastic leaflet drill activities for this skill. Read a section of material, then look away. Try, from memory, to reproduce the material in your own words. This can be spoken, written, or (ideally) both.

Local language for local leaflets

Remember, these are local leaflets for local people! Well, not quite. But be enthusiastically cautious about leaflets in languages other than the local one for that attraction. Most of the time, professional translators, who are native speakers, will have translated the documents. However, this is not always the case. We have all spotted errors in even the most careful of translations into our own languages.

As a rule, it is always safest to grab the guide in the actual language of the country you are visiting. That said, this never stopped me snaffling literature in German and Polish when visiting the Book of Kells in Dublin. And it shouldn’t curb your enthusiasm either! Just regard such material with a careful and critical eye.

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

These guidelines should help inject some purpose and organisation into your pursuit of lovely leaflets. Above all, just enjoy this excellent – and free! –  source of learning material without getting lost in sea of paper. Oh – and leave a few behind for everybody else, too!

How do you learn from the material you pick up on your travels? Do you have specific leaflet-learning ideas that help? Share them in the comments below!

Finnish in Finland : the Lutheran Cathedral in Helsinki

Finnish in seven days? Express language projects and learning how to learn

How much of a new foreign language can we learn in just seven days? It’s a tempting question that captures our imagination and challenges our mettle as polyglots. And it’s one I set out to answer with Finnish, as I prepared for a whistle stop three-day visit to lovely Helsinki this week.

For practical purposes, my knowledge of Finnish was almost nothing as I approached the seven-days-and-counting mark to my trip.  But as enthusiastic, language-loving polyglots, we are never really starting from scratch. We have a full tank of pre-knowledge to get us started – not necessarily on those specific languages we set out to study, but more general techniques for learning languages. And, in many ways, taking on time-limited language projects like this is an excellent way to take stock of our wider language learning approaches.

I’ve started, so I’ll… Finnish

One caveat: I did have a little pre-knowledge of Finnish itself, but not much. My exposure to this wonderful language of fifteen grammatical cases (!) has been limited. I have a little more experience of Helsinki itself, and this was my third trip here.

My last Finnish sojourn was a two-week working holiday to Helsinki, covering the Eurovision Song Contest 2007 for the fansite esctoday.com (never one for conformity to the norm). Dazzled by the glitz of the event, I barely made it past the first chapter of Teach Yourself Finnish before the stage lights won my attention. Two weeks and barely a handful of words learnt… I had some catching up to do in order to live down that polyglot fail!

So, beyond hyvää päivää (good day), kiitos (thanks) and a clutch of Eurovision song titles, I could barely remember a thing. I still had that old, battered Teach Yourself book, which I dug out in readiness. How would I fare third time round in Finland?

Time management

First things first: we have to make time for last-minute learning. To this end, I have always been a fan of time management apps and digital techniques for organising our lives. I already use Evernote to plan my productivity week, so it was a simple case of devising a plan and adding it to my weekly list of tactics. Since I already had Teach Yourself Finnish, I decided to use this as my primary course material. I would blitz through a chapter a day in order to reach chapter seven by the day of my flight.

Of course, no recipe is perfect. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that fairly high expectation of myself, I could not quite manage to stick rigidly to the plan. In fact, I only just managed to break into chapter four before I was enjoying my Finnair blueberry juice. But just as important as your plan is the ability to treat it flexibly around life’s ebb and flow. And by tracking your language tasks using tools like Evernote, you can still achieve the satisfaction of seeing progress, even when the everyday gets in the way.

Material world

My book-based course was the bedrock, but not the only route I used to bolstering my Finnish. You see, there is a particularly helpful side-benefit of returning to languages previously attempted and ‘failed’. It opens the way to a realisation of how your learning approaches have become more creative and effective than the bare books many of us inevitably started with.

My own big win is a much more active consumption of new vocabulary compared to my early beginnings as a language learner. Now, as I work through material, I use a number of resources to work on the vocabulary and engage with it. Principally, I grow my own Anki decks of words and phrases to learn and practise from – a technique that really helps give a sense of ownership over the word lists. This one change by itself has made a huge difference in vocab retention compared to my previous, floundering attempts at Finnish.

Multimodal approach

What it boils down to is a much more multimodal approach to learning today. Where once the norm was a book (and accompanying audio tracks, if you forked out the extra cash), there are now multiple, parallel resources across the range of skills. Why settle for one route to knowledge, when we can take advantage of multiple streams at once? Especially when so much is now available online, including from national broadcasters like Finland’s YLE (attempting to read news headlines is a favourite language task of mine).

Crucially, working through information in a number of ways helps beat the context effect – the inflexibility of recall that results from seeing material in the same, single setting without variation. The multimodal approach makes for flexible language knowledge, better primed for the unpredictable. And so I proceeded, not just sticking to Anki, but importing my word lists into Quizlet and Educandy, practising my Finnish vocab in every game setting available to me.

Practising the Finnish language using the activity creator website Educandy.com

Practising Finnish vocabulary exported from Anki using the activity creator website Educandy.com

It also helps if you can creatively dovetail your language project into your day-to-day. I work in language app development, and curate a series of verb reference and drill apps. I used the exposure to this new language to start a brand new Finnish version of the app, learning a lot of new verbs in the process.

Music to my ears

Ultimately, the pinnacle of multimodality for me is the crossover between foreign languages and music. Finland has a particularly rich and varied Eurovision tradition (sadly not reflected in many of its contest results!). Thanks to the excellent resource Diggiloo Thrush, the lyrics of all of these pop gems are available to read and learn online. Music to the ears of a language-loving Eurovision fan.

Playing these tunes at my piano, attempting to sing along with the lyrics, was more than just a vocab exercise. Warbling along to your favourite foreign language songs is more about practising sounds out loud, having fun with the way they emerge from your own mouth.

That said, interrogating song lyrics with a dictionary is a lexical adventure all on its own. Is there a stand-out, ear worm lyric in one of your favourites? For me, one particularly catchy lyrical moment crops up in Ami Aspelund’s Fantasiaa of 1983. That punchy, initial Kuka hän on? (Who is s/he?) sticks in the mind. Thanks to her, I will never forget that kuka means ‘who’!

Obviously, there is no need to be a Eurovision fan for this (despite my protestations). Spotify offers a wealth of world music, and a quick lyrics search on Google will throw up the words to almost anything, anywhere.

Spotting the shortfalls

As well as all the upsides, Express language learning can quickly reveal the shortcomings of platforms and techniques. Learning under time pressure can shed light on the limitations of our tools (and brains). And this is no bad thing: by knowing where these potholes are, we can plan to circumnavigate them in our future projects.

For one thing, I realised that Teach Yourself books (as well as other traditional book-based courses) often off with less than immediately handy vocab for a short trip. That can seem a bit topsy-turvy. For example,I ended up learning how to introduce myself before asking for a coffee, which I had to look up when I was already in Helsinki.

The antidote? Next time, I might include phrasebooks as source material, and work on purposefully learning ‘holiday situation’ vocabulary alongside thematic course book chapters. Polyglot celeb Benny Lewis has been advocating this approach for years, and it seems like a good beginner’s strategy.

Anki workarounds

Additionally, it became clear that Anki, on its default setting, feeds through new vocabulary far too slowly for quick projects. I had reached chapter three of my course book and already added nearly 300 words. But at the ten-per-day trickle, I was never going to have practised them all by the time my  flight came around.

You can adjust this, but it is probably not advisable – our brains can only retain so much new material, and it can be counterproductive to push them beyond what their most efficient comfort zones.

So what to do instead? One solution I came up with was not to add every single lexeme, but to focus on adding the words I would find most useful on my trip. From the section on nationality I decided to keep englantilainen (English person) and ditch venäläinen (Russian person), ranskalainen (French person) and so on. A sharp focus is the order of the day with ‘in seven days’ projects.

With Anki, you must also prioritise actively the order you tackle your decks in. If your express language is part of a subdeck, it will share its new card quota with its sibling decks. Clear your other decks first, and Anki will not offer any of your new language up for learning for the rest of the day. So, for a week, Finnish had to be my first port of call when opening Anki.

Multiple language decks in Anki

Multiple language decks in Anki. Sibling decks share their new card quota, so your most pressing projects (like my express Finnish) should be tackled first.

Sometimes, adaptation might not be possible. Namely, the language might simply be absent on your favourite platforms. There is little to do about that, except look elsewhere – or wait and hope. I especially regretted the lack of a Finnish course on my current favourite platform, Duolingo. But Finnish is in the pipeline for the future, which will come in handy if (when!) I return to the language.

Boots on the ground

Remember, the start of your trip is not the end. However much you learn before the trip, the learning continues in a much more exciting, active vein on location. Suddenly, vocabulary is learnt in context, and with immediate relevance. Once in Finland, I started soaking up new words like olut (beer), maito (milk) and suola (salt). Naturally, these have gone straight into my Anki decks. Those words are now mine!

Increase that sense of ownership by recording all those new items in the full colour of multimedia. Images, videos, audio clips of friendly locals speaking (if you dare) are all par for the course. I now have a whole bank of food packaging photos after just a couple of days!

“Kiitos” (thanks) on a grocery bag from a Helsinki supermarket. Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

Kiitos! Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

And of course, being on the move abroad, there is always something else to learn just around the corner. The incorrigible linguist that I am, another nearby language is already in my sights; I might have to sneak a little Estonian in there too, for a quick hop across the Gulf of Finland to Tallinn.

Finnish in seven days? What about Estonian in seven hours? 

Voice assistants - multilingual robot helpers in your phone! (Image from freeimages.com)

You cannot be Siri-ous! Voice Assistants for Language Learning

Switching the language settings on your phone is a well-known trick for fast-tracking your language learning. But with constant improvement to Voice Assistant technology like Siri and Google Assistant, learners have something potentially even more exciting in their pockets: a mobile native speaker.

How can we take advantage of this ubiquitous technology? And how effective is it as a learning tool?

I road-tested the technique over the past few weeks using Siri in Norwegian on my iPhone. And above all, it has been a fun ride!

Behaviour change

The irony is that in spite of the widespread nature of the tech, Voice Assistants struggle to find a regular place in our lives. Barely a quarter of mobile users speak to their phone daily; 40% say they have never used the feature. Many of us leave the powerful technology of personalised AI unused, even in our native languages.

From my own personal experience, and that of family and friends, it seems that Voice Assistant apps are entertaining curios rather than serious tools. When was the last time you last asked your phone for something?

Given all this, just using Siri at all is a behaviour change for a lot of us. But that makes this technique something of a voyage of discovery, too. Just what can our clever smartphones actually do?

Vocab of the day-to-day

The answer: well, not quite everything, despite the grand claims. Siri and Google Assistant have a set of skills which focus very tightly on the organisation of the day-to-day. They are not as clever at more transactional, lengthy exchanges. So while they might not improve your general conversation skills, they provide an excellent language workout for weather, time and place vocabulary in particular.

Through experimenting with your phone, will find your own unique way to fit these specified skills of foreign language Voice Assistants into your life. For me, as a walker, the handiest phrases in my everyday have been:

  • What is the temperature today?
  • How is the weather today?
  • When is sunset today?

After repeated use of those, my Norwegian weather and time vocab is positively steaming! And the best thing? I typically hate practising number, time and date vocabulary in any language. That is the material I will skip first to get to the ‘meaty’ stuff as a learner. The novelty of using Siri in Norwegian has finally got me practising – and remembering – those essential phrases. Aiming to ask one or two of these questions daily makes for a good weekly plan tactic, too.

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Thinking on your feet

Microchips are not perfect. Your voice assistant may not always understand you first time round. That goes especially for the early stages of language learning when our speech is less colloquial. But the upside to that? It is a stellar learning opportunity.

Misunderstandings with your digital assistant force you to practise rephrasing, an essential skill in speaking foreign languages. If it doesn’t work first time, say it again in a different way. It is just as valid with your Voice Assistant as with a flesh-and-blood native speaker.

Of course, this can be a challenge. After three attempts at finding out where the nearest supermarket is, desperation may creep in. But it does force you to be creative!

Have a little fun

Now, riveting conversation all this may not be. But that is not to say that there is no attempt on the part of the developers to add some personality spice. Who hasn’t said something silly to their Voice Assistant on the first encounter, just to elicit a funny response?

If you tire of the weather, try “do you like me?“, “are you happy?” or even “I love you” in the target language. The responses may be enlightening!

Translation station

As a side note, it may seem obvious, but don’t forget that Voice Assistant apps also offer direct translation capabilities. Learning the phrases for how do you say X in … and translate X into Y turn your phone into a quick dictionary tool. The catch: it might not be available in your target-native language pair (as is the case with Norwegian-English, unfortunately).

When Siri cannot translate.

“Hey Siri, how do you say ‘translate’ in English?” “I cannot translate from that language yet, but I can search for it on the Internet.”

Cross-language fail

As fun as this language learning technique is, it is not trouble-free. In particular, there are problems when languages cross over in our multilingual lives. For instance, you may need to accustom yourself to saying the names of family and friends phonetically, as if they were target language words. Otherwise, asking Norwegian Siri to call Aisling is going to result in a very blank digital stare.

Messaging functionality is also compromised due to this cross-language fail. I instructed Siri – in Norwegian – to send a text to a friend, then dictated the text in English. Predictably (easy to say now!), Siri tried to make sense of my message as Norwegian. I now have no idea what it was originally meant to say, but it caused a great deal of confusion at the other end!

A garbled text message from my Voice Assistant

What happens when your Norwegian Voice Assistant tries to send a text in English…

One-track language

The fact is that it is quite inconvenient to switch your Voice Assistant language settings all the time. So, if you want to take advantage of this technique, you will have to accept that certain things like text and calendar functions will be hampered – if not rendered completely impossible – while you are in learning mode.

Similarly, it is only practical to do this in one language at a time. In an ideal mobile world, I could speak all my languages to Siri and it would intelligently recognise and respond in the appropriate language. Alas, we are not quite there yet.

If you work around these stumbling blocks, you can eke a great deal of useful language practice from switching your Voice Assistant language. In fact, I’ve grown rather fond of mine; I might just leave it switched to Norwegian for the foreseeable!

At the heart of it is this: using a Voice Assistant in your foreign language is, quite simply, good fun. It is a moment of show-offy, giddy pride when family and friends hear me address Siri in a foreign language, for example. It is a badge of honour, a little show of skill that can boost motivation. And that is certainly worth the effort.

Hotspot for politics: inside the cupola of the German Reichstag in Berlin

Hot Politics: cooking up language learning opportunities from election posters

It’s European Parliament election time all over the European Union – even, perhaps, in the UK after recent developments – which means that Europe is awash with slogans and soundbites again. And politics, not always a dirty word, can be great for linguists.

Political sloganism is a tightly-packed linguistic format that lends itself well to brains looking for new vocabulary and structures. As you walk through the placard-plastered streets of Berlin, Paris, Madrid and other European towns and cities, there is much to learn from the language used on all sides and across all arguments.

Billboards have blossomed over Berlin in recent weeks, illustrating the point nicely. I spent last weekend walking around the very sunny German capital, which right now serves up rich pickings for linguistically-minded politicos (or politically minded linguisticos?). A selection of them below give a taste of how voter-targeted, snappy political discourse can double as excellent source material for the language learner. *

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Europe remains our future”

Putting politics to good use

So why is this kind of language so useful?

Language microbites

For one thing, the language of political campaigning is satisfyingly bite-sized and concise. It often includes colloquialisms and phrasing that you can easily reuse in your own speech.

One way to view them is as micro-stimuli for vocabulary learning. They contain just enough content to provide new material to the learner, but are short enough not to overwhelm. That makes them perfect for language learning on the go (especially with Google Translate and Wiktionary handy to look up new words, and Anki ready to add them to your personal lexical bank). Phone in hand, you can positively milk those streets for vocab.

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Learn from people instead of just from books”

Opinion boosters

What’s more, political language is particularly rich in opinion-formulating language. You can synthesise this into your repertoire to spice up your own target-language conversations. Political slogans aim to get quickly to the point. By integrating the same kind of structures into your own speech, you can add flow to your speaking without getting bogged down in over-complex sentence construction.

In fact, that formulation of to-the-point, persuasive language still draws on ancient tricks of the political trade: rhetoric. This ancient art of arguing the case still has a lot to teach foreign language wordsmiths, and you can pick up plenty of tips from street sign politics.

If you can understand Norwegian, a recent episode of the ever excellent language podcast Språkteigen unpacks the political rhetoric behind a recent speech by Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General and former Norwegian PM. Well worth a listen!

Politics on the street: DGB poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: DGB poster in Berlin, “Worked a whole life long – that deserves respect!”

Talking points

For the same reason, poster text can act as a great, opinion-triggering stimulus for speaking with language learning peers or teachers. Do you agree with the sentiment? Why (not)? Truly, the printed messages around us cover all sides of political discourse. Let them prompt you to respond with your own, authentic reactions and counter-opinions.

Politics on the street: Die Grünen poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: Die Grünen poster in Berlin, “Only a social Europe is a strong Europe.”

Zeitgeist barometers

Finally, political campaign slogans also offer a unique snapshot of the current cultural landscape of your target language country. The hot topics of the day can be quite different from those in the world back home. Studying campaign material on the street can help you to read the Zeitgeist of your countries and cultures of interest.

Likewise, learning from material in the now is also a great way to bring your vocabulary up-to-date (especially if you used a rather old text to learn the basics from!).

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Let’s not leave digitalisation to the rest of the world.”

 

Election watch

All kinds of elections are happening all the time across our target language countries. Be in the watch-out for campaigns and the language they engender. You don’t even need to travel to far-off streets to get your fix, either. Websites and social media feeds can be a goldmine of polemical vocabulary. Very handy for those quiet periods between elections, too!

Not sure what to look out for online? Wikipedia collates useful political party lists for most countries. Here are a few to get you started:

*I should add that the sample of placards I photographed is not meant to imply any political bias – just the route I happened to walk along on that sunny day in Berlin!

Irish countryside (photo by Brian Lary, freeimages.com)

Language immersion, Irish style : learning tips from a bilingual state

It feels like I’ve been in Ireland rather a lot, lately. It’s partly due to my fairly late discovery that there is this beautiful, fascinating country to explore only a hop away from my own. But a large part of the pull is undoubtedly the Irish language, which has worked its magic on me recently.

But the magic of Irish is not simply in the beauty of the words and phrases, or the way it seems so fresh and exotic compared to the other European languages I know. It is in the way that Irish is woven into every aspect of life in Éire.

It is simply inescapable.

Irish is everywhere

Although Irish has short of just 150,00 first language speakers, the ubiquity of the language on the street signs and paraphernalia of officialdom in Ireland makes it impossible not to soak up some Gaeilge if you spend any time there.

Road signs are bilingual – and set to become even more so. The nomenclature of government and state departments is almost entirely in Irish. So are the names of many political parties. Add to that the presence of Irish-language media and common Irish words for socialising in English, like sláinte (health / cheers!), and you have the perfect ingredients for an almost imperceptible daily immersion in the language.

The benefits are twofold. If you grew up in Ireland, you are reminded on a daily basis of the Irish you learnt at school. It is impossible to forget what you once learnt! And as a visitor, you see the same words pop up time and again, with a regularity that makes them start to stick.

Surely there is a lesson in there somewhere for all of us linguists, whatever language we study.

Irish inspiration for your own language learning

Of course, there is nothing new under the sun, and this handy language everywhere immersion effect of the bilingual Irish state is no new trick. It is a technique employed, for example, by the excellent in 10 minutes series of textbooks. Each of these colourful beginner guides features pages of sticky labels to affix to objects in your home. Bumping into the words for bed, cupboard, lamp and more is a fun and effective way to learn and reinforce your core vocab.

Now, you don’t have to buy commercial versions of labels to accent your environment with. A sheet of blank labels or post-its and a pen are more than enough to get started. Keep an eye on those expensive furnishings – don’t go ruining the best chair with adhesive vandalism. But be creative: colour-code, find innovative ways to represent grammatical info, add images if they are helpful. If you study more than one foreign language, make your signs as polyglot as you are.

And why stop at labels? You can make your own temporary signs and notices using a wipe-clean whiteboard. Write on your to-do notes and shopping lists in the target language. And if you live with non-linguists, then take a leaf out of the Irish playbook: make them bilingual. Your housemates might even start to pick up a few words.

Although we can’t make our home towns and cities bilingual, we can take a leaf out of Ireland’s book* and make our homes multilingual. Ádh mór ort / good luck!

* Or that of Scotland or Wales!

Eat the frog - not literally, of course, but in a language learning sense! Image from freeimages.com.

Frogs for breakfast! Language planning and the early bird

Do you ever get to the end of your language learning day, week or month with a heap of tasks to get through from your planning? Does your joy turn into a chore when you realise how many Anki flashcards have built up, or how many pages of your book you need to read to keep on track?

Then maybe it’s time to start breaking the fast on a bit of frog.

Before you baulk at the prospect, don’t worry! It’s not as gruesome as it sounds. The eat-the-frog principle is about getting big tasks out of the way early on. You would want to get that task out of the way as quickly as possible if you had to do it, right? Well, you can similarly prioritise lengthy and effort-intensive learning activities to do early in your planning.

Applying eat-the-frog planning to your learning, you avoid letting routine tasks queue up and become overwhelming later on. It is a stock technique of productivity coaches. Self-development author Brian Tracy has written a whole book on digesting your grenouille early in the day.

A more palatable metaphor?

If the frog image is a little too disturbing, then perhaps there is another way to think of this. Last year, I came across a wonderful idiom in Spanish: comerse un marrón, literally to eat up a chestnut. That chestnut is the unpleasant morsel to swallow, the tedious task to get out of the way. The sooner you get it done, the better you feel.

But, candied chestnuts also being tasty treats, perhaps this is a more apt way to think of our language tasks. Lovely, but leaving them all at once to eat at the end of the day will do us no good at all!

Eat up those chestnuts early! Image from freeimages.com.

Eat up those chestnuts early!

Language learners tend to place high expectations on themselves. To keep these many frogs and chestnuts as sweet as possible, it can help to combine weekly planning with a regular routine to tackle them systematically.

Build a morning routine

The business of simply living a life can really throw our language learning off the tracks sometimes. Job, family, friends, other interests – they all suck up our time. It’s tempting to leave our languages to the end of the day, after all that is done. After all, we love languages, don’t we? To indulge in them in the last, quiet hours of the day should be a treat. Right?

Well, in our passion for the subject, we forget how energy-intensive study is. Often, all I want to do after the sun goes down is chill. For sure, certain language exercises fit the bill – foreign language Netflix, passive podcast listening and so on – but more vanilla study activities like textbooks and Anki decks require our full attention and effort.

Moving some of these tasks to the morning can have a drastic effect on your study stamina. You not only have the benefit of a more fresher, less depleted you. You also avoid that sense of stress and urgency from running out of road at the end of the day.

Anki cards, for example, soon pile up if you leave them. It’s an uncomfortable feeling when, at 11pm, you realise that you have to shift 80 card reviews before the pile up on tomorrow’s to-do list. Then there’s the Duolingo XP that you need to get to maintain your streak – but it’s nearly the end of the day. That stress makes the task all the more uncomfortable.

Instead, swallow that frog for breakfast. On the train to work, at your desk before you start your daily tasks, during your morning break. Blast them when you have time and energy in abundance.

Micro-task regime

This kind of planning works especially well with smaller, more granular micro-tasks. These are typically standalone activities, taking 5-15 minutes each. Vocabulary review and online / app tutorial sections are a good example, although you could turn any activity into a micro-task. For instance, a ten-minute session of foreign language reading soon mounts up over time. This works particularly well if you are reading a book divided into very short chapters (like the Norwegian crime novel I’m currently reading!).

My own weekly language learning to-do currently looks something like this, with both daily and weekly tasks. As the foundation for these weekly planning lists, I use the 12-week year system, which helps focus my efforts on defined goals.

Planning a language learning week in Evernote

Planning a language learning week in Evernote

Before work tends to be my ideal time for frog-fighting. I try to get my 100-200 points on Duolingo then, as well as all of my Anki card reviews. One thing I know for sure: if I haven’t shifted the bulk of it by the evening, it feels like more of a chore. If I blast it in the morning, I not only have my routine learning / review done and dusted. I also get a feel-good buzz of “this is a productive start to the day!” from it.

If you follow a seven-day cycle like this, the same applies to your entire week. If, by Saturday, you still have a heap of weekly goals to tick off, the pressure mounts. The stress that causes is the biggest passion killer for a subject you love. Instead, try tackling your heftier language tasks, like active podcast listening, at the beginning of the week.

Language learning should never become a chore. Prevent your own frogs / chestnuts / other appropriate metaphors from getting big, ugly and stressful by building a structured morning routine. Frogs for breakfast – sunny side up!

Pull some Anki magic tricks out of your top hat! (Image from freeimages.com)

Anki magic tricks – by serendipity

I’ll make a confession here, as a die-hard Anki aficionado: I haven’t read the manual.

That is, at least, from cover to cover. For one thing, the Anki user guide is pretty thick (in digital terms). For another, I hate long instruction manuals. Instead, I learnt to use Anki by playing. Just dive in, have a go. From new electronic gadgets to household appliances, that spirit of exploration (and perhaps a touch of impatience) has followed me from childhood.

The inclination to tinker still turns up new tricks by the week. There is a lot to explore in Anki.

Back to basics

Sometimes, however, going back to basics can be helpful. A chance leaf through the Anki manual this week turned up some nuggets of wisdom I had long missed.

In fact, what I found out what not at all what I thought I was looking for. It started out as an attempt to tidy up my media folder by using subfolders. Would the media folder cope with these?

Well, partly. It appeared that the desktop and iOS apps behaved quite differently in this case, so I turned to the user guide for help. I didn’t find what I was looking for, sadly. It transpires that subfolders are recognised by the desktop program, but not the iOS app.

But all was not lost! Through my leafing through these online help pages, I did happen upon a really useful trick with filenames. How serendipitous!

Protect template images

To illustrate how useful this accidental trick is, let me set the scene. The topic of sprucing up Anki decks with media has long been one of my favourite topics to cover on this blog. From customising cards with images like flags, to maintaining a tidy media folder with the Tools > Check Media function, it’s par for the course for any Anki-loving linguist.

A customised Icelandic card in Anki

An Icelandic card in Anki –
complete with flag!

That said, I noticed something frustrating with that Check Media function in recent weeks. Each time I let it run to clean up unused image and sound files, my flag images were appearing in the list as candidates for deletion.

This is because they have no link to an actual Anki note – just a template.

Anki lists as unused all media not linked to a note.

Anki lists as unused all media not linked to a note.

To give a concrete example of this, let’s take this note in an Irish vocabulary deck for oráiste (orange), with a linked image file orange.png. That picture is perfectly safe from Anki’s musings, as it was added directly to the note. The Check Media tool will consider it in use by your decks, as it attached to the entry for oráiste. But your Irish flag image, flag_ie.png will only be present on the card template.

An Anki card with a note image and a template image.

An Anki card with a note image
and a template image.

Without being linked to an actual note, Anki flags your flag as unused every time you Check Media. And you don’t want to accidentally hit Delete Unused and get rid of it on a day when your attention is less than optimal!

Now, named as it is, Anki will always consider these files candidates for deletion. But the remedy I chanced across in the user guide is surprisingly simple. All you need to do is prefix any template-only media files with an underscore. Check Media then overlooks them, and they disappear from your list of deletion suggestions.

The Anki media folder, with underscores prefixing template media files.

The Anki media folder, with underscores prefixing template media files.

Two tricks for the price of one

My new Anki magic tricks didn’t stop there. I found the underscore tip, whilst searching for subfolders, in the section on custom fonts in card templates. Yes: it’s possible to go one step further with your customisation, and install fonts that travel around with your decks from device to device. This could be particularly useful if you are creating cards in a language with a very particularly, non-standard script.

Before we get too excited, however, the feature doesn’t yet work on the Mac OS version. It’s also unclear how much support there is in the mobile apps for it. Which returns me to the starting point of my query: subfolders, which also seem to lack full support across Anki’s platforms.

But then, that is the point of tinkering. Through playing around, we somehow find a way. And the user guide is always there when that approach fails!

You really do learn something every day, don’t you? May the spirit of the tinkerer follow you in your own Anki exploits. But dive into that guide now and again – you never know what you might find.

The World (image from freeimages.com)

Challenging labels : exploiting globalism for language learning

Enjoying a cold stout from an East London microbrewery for my birthday, I glanced down at the label and caught a real treat. There was the satisfyingly short list of ingredients, repeated in multiple languages on the label.

Hoxton Stout - complete with ingredients in multiple languages!

Hoxton Stout – complete with ingredients in multiple languages!

Geeking over a polyglot product label is an observation that gives away my generation. I belong to that not-so-distant cohort of kids who cross that divide where the Internet flickered to life, the world became smaller and the everyday became truly global.

As a language-obsessed kid, this kind of access to target language was something rare and special. Any snippet of foreign language was valuable. A bit of French, German, Spanish on the back of a packet was a little piece of magic.

In today’s world, languages are everywhere.

It gets harder by the year to remember that it wasn’t always like this. For one thing, legislation on food labelling is (thankfully) tighter today. There’s much more to read on your packets than ever before.

But that explosion in multiple languages is down to a world of increasingly interconnected flows across vast distances. Those flows continue to be a rich mine of source material for linguists, however much we now take them for granted.

At the mercy of markets

The specific languages that we read on the ephemera around us depend on some complex, fluctuating chains. The ebbs and flows of globalism change regularly, and what seems common  one year can disappear the next. Language learning label hunters are at the mercy of markets when it comes to scouring products for vocabulary.

As my Hoxton stout shows, you can strike it lucky. Your chosen tongues can turn up in the most unexpected of places. Norwegian in a Shoreditch pub – who’d have thought?

But sometimes, you have to just work with what the markets give you.

In the UK right now, it is wonderfully easy to find labelling in the languages of Eastern Europe. In the current setup, European supply chains see products manufactured at a more favourable cost in the East, then shipped across the whole continent. To cater for multiple local markets, labels now include the whole gamut of languages in lists of ingredients and instructions.

Incidentally, the Open University has an excellent (now archived) course on this very subject: DD205 Living in a globalised world. Well worth checking out if you are interested in learning more.

Keep an open mind

For a learner of Polish, these arrangements are very welcome. But even if those languages are unfamiliar, or not yet on your radar, perhaps the exotic ingredient words are enough to pique your interest in some of these lesser-studied gems.

After all, perhaps we can respond to languages, as learners, much as consumers to product markets. Our choices about what to learn are broadened, honed, funnelled – and of course, limited – by the materials that land in front of us thanks to these global flows.

Constantly surrounded by a certain language? Work with it!

So how can we bend this tide of globalism, with its flood of goods, to our own language learning?

Hunt them down

Discounters like Poundland are a perfect place to find polyglot goods with global spread, since they are mass-produced for economies of scale without the expensive localisation of premium products. Once you find a rich seam of them, the sheer volume of multilanguage packets will busy you on endless shopping trips.

Globalism takes it one step further, too. Increasingly, whole outlets, as well as individual products from overseas, can find their way to your local High Street. Danish learners are in luck in the UK, for instance: branches of Flying Tiger are popping up in all sorts of cities, chock full of dansk-branded goodies. That’s not to mention Muji for Japanese students. Likewise, lucky French learners can head to L’Occitane for a vocab hit.

Flying Tiger Danish pencils - a linguist's spoils of globalism!

Flying Tiger Danish blyanter
a linguist’s spoils of globalism!

Seek them near – and far

You don’t have to wait for the products to come to you, either. Bringing things back from holiday is a great way to learn from packaging and feed your enthusiasm with the curiosity of others. You can, for example, turn overseas products into quirky talking points with friends. In my experience, few fail to be (at least briefly!) intrigued by Kvikklunsj, the Norwegian incarnation of the KitKat. 🇳🇴🍫😁

No wonder. It’s not only covered in Bokmål, but is a staple of Norwegian everyday life. Language, culture and chocolate – could linguaphiles really ask for more? 😋

Chocolate – and language – are meant for sharing. Delight in the opportunity to show friends and colleagues your world by bringing items like this back as post-trip gifts and explaining what they are. Explaining and teaching to others is a fantastic way to consolidate your own learning. You might even win a few curious converts to the polyglot cause!

Consume them actively

These products are manufactured to be enjoyed. So as well as consuming your chocolate or biscuits with gusto, devour that vocabulary actively too. Look up each item on those ingredients lists and turn them into concrete Anki notes. Make Quizlet or Educandy activities to test yourself on them. Look up sukker, miód and Hagebutte on Wiktionary for more detailed lexical info. Take your search further on the relevant language version of Wikipedia, too.

Always consider polyglot products a jumping point for vocabulary exploration.

To keep track of your finds, log them in an electronic scrapbook. Multimedia notebooks Evernote and OneNote are perfect for this: simply snap your wrappers into a note, and type relevant vocabulary explanations underneath for reference.

At this point, you may shudder: what have I become? Collecting electronic snippings of sweet wrappers and crisp packets? Don’t worry: Just pat yourself on the back and think of the language learning!

Globalism and the global village linguist

Even for those without grand travel plans, foreign language labels are a reminder that there is somebody else out there. Somebody, even, who might like to enjoy that Hoxton Stout in a market far, far away. And if language learners appreciate one thing, it is the nature of today’s global village.

When the tectonic plates of globalism shift – as may happen, for example, in the aftermath of current political changes in the UK – those flows can change drastically. The label languages of tomorrow may be quite different. We may feel helpless in the face of this. But perhaps a more proactive way to view it, as a linguist, is as opportunity: new languages, new cultures, new people.

Life, like language, is in constant flux: adapt, consume and enjoy it.

As contemporary linguists, we enjoy an unprecedented level of foreign language in everyday places. Seize the opportunities, and ride the flows of globalism. You too can get (linguistically) rich quick!

There's no better time to clean up your Anki! (Image from freeimages.com)

Anki Spring Cleaning : Brush up your decks!

It’s almost Spring! So doesn’t it feel like time for a refresh? A change is as good as a rest, and if that doesn’t go for our Anki decks too, I don’t know what does.

The thing with well-used tools is that, over time, the lose their sheen. Imperfections creep in, annoying niggles that we ignore for the time being. A note type out of place. An image not showing now and again. It may not interrupt our learning terribly, but after a while they can start to grate.

That’s why it’s a great idea to lay aside some time every few months to clean up your Anki decks.  If you are also a stickler for order, you will understand this declutter itch!

So what is the order of ceremonies for our Anki freshen-up blast? Our tidying spree here will focus on three areas:

  1. Bringing card images into the Anki file rather than external links
  2. Cleaning up unwanted media (without deleting your card images)
  3. Identifying and eliminating rogue note types

Before we start, remember to exercise caution when tinkering around in Anki’s underbelly. Preferably, make a full backup via the Export feature before you start. Better safe than sorry!

1. All-inclusive media

If you know a bit of HTML, it’s easy to spruce up your cards with colour and images. When I customise Anki cards, I often use flags, for instance. For the visual polyglot learner in you, flags can really help keep multiple languages separate in memory.

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

A Norwegian card in Anki

Now, for speed and ease, I often just search for a flag image online and use the URL directly in the card, like this:

<img src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/0/03/Flag_of_Italy.svg/1500px-Flag_of_Italy.svg.png" width="50" height="40" style="margin-bottom: 20px; border: 2px solid black" />

The problem here is not only that the code looks bloated and long-winded. More seriously, when using the decks without internet, the flags are simply absent, since they are downloaded every time.

Bring them home

The trick is to download and place your images inside Anki so they ‘live’ inside your data. Anki has a media folder just for this. Usually, the program places items there automatically when you add sound or images to a card, for example. But you can place them there yourself, too, and refer to them in your card code.

To open the media folder, open your Anki Preferences. Then, select the Backups tab. You should see a link titled Open backup folder – click it.

Anki Preferences

Anki Preferences

Now, the folder it opens isn’t the one we want. We need to go up one directory level, then into the folder called collection.media. This is where your Anki account keeps all of its MP3, PNG and similar files. With this folder open, it’s a good idea to close the Anki program in the background while we work.

Download and add the flag images and otherwise to this folder. You might want to resize them first. And, if you have lots of them, use a file naming system that keeps things tidy. For example, I prefix flag image files with fl_.

Close the folder once you are done, then reopen Anki. Head to the browser, select a card for customising, and you are set to use simply the file name on its own to link the image:

<img src="flag_it.png" width="50" height="40" style="margin-bottom: 20px; border: 2px solid black" />

Isn’t that so much better?

One note: you can nest files in subfolders and refer to them in your code, like flags/flag_it.png. However, while the desktop app recognises these paths, it seems that the iPhone app doesn’t. As with all these things, it’s worth playing around to see what you can and can’t do (while taking copious backups along the way, of course).

2. Media hangover

While we hang around in Anki’s media emporium, we may as well take the opportunity to keep on cleaning!

For a long time, I wondered why my Anki syncs were so large. It turned out that the media from old, since removed, shared decks were still hanging around. Inexplicably, deleting the deck hadn’t deleted the associated media. Carefully checking and deleting that wodge of unwanted files took multiple megabytes off my sync.

Of course, Anki has a tool for this already, in Tools > Check Media. In theory, it lists unused / unliked media for deletion. But sometimes a hands-on approach is just a bit more reliable. For one thing, your card images, like the flags above, will be listed as unused. They are not attached to cards, but rather your card templates, meaning they fall through Anki’s net. We don’t want the program to delete those!

A nice tidy Anki media folder

A nice and tidy Anki media folder

3. Rogue note types, begone!

Similarly, as with the media clutter, I’d accumulated some note types that meant nothing to me over prolonged use. Some of them seemed to be versions of standard cards but with odd suffixes, like Basic and Reversed Card-accfe. This seems to happen when cards are imported from shared decks, and there is some conflict with existing card types.

Fortunately, it is an easy problem to fix. Head to Tools > Manage Note Types on the home screen of the desktop app. Then, hit Add to create a new note type based on the same template as the strangely named notes.

Adding a new note type in Anki

Adding a new note type in Anki

After the new note type is ready, you can head to the Browse section of Anki. In the left-hand list, you should find an entry for the rogue note type. Click it to view cards assigned to that type, and highlight the notes you want to correct. Then go to Edit > Change Note Type, and change the selected cards to the new, corrected note type you set up above.

After you have done this to all the cards assigned to the strangely-named rogue types, you can go back to Tools > Manage Note Types on the main screen and delete them. Check that it reads 0 notes next to the type before you do – if not, you still need to change the type of some cards unless you no longer want to keep them.

Changing the note type in Anki

Changing the note type in Anki

As you get used to the internal machinery of the Anki app, you can do a regular sweep to keep on top of these foibles. It’s quite satisfying – a little akin to doing regular weeding to keep your garden in order – and will increase that sense of ownership you have over your vocabulary.

So roll up your sleeves, make plentiful backups, and get to Spring cleaning! Your Anki decks will positively shine for it.