Anki Enhanced Cloze

“Cloze” to Perfect : Extending Anki’s Gapfill Activities

Ever had that realisation that there was a better way to do what you doing all along, one hiding under your nose the whole time? Well, that was my week of epiphany with Anki.

Anki has included cloze functionality pretty much from the get-go. If you’ve not come across cloze before, it’s basically fill-in-the-missing-word. Your card pops up, and instead of providing the whole answer, you just recall the missing section.

Cloze is a great tool in your learning box to ward against the isolation issue with vocab. Learning items in context is just as (if not more) important than learning individual items. If you drill ich habe einen Hund (I have a dog) in German, you’ll not only pick up Hund, but a handy sentence frame and grammatical information to boot. Vocab plus structure is always a winning combo (and why mass sentence drilling is so powerful).

Native Cloze in Anki

Anki’s native cloze capabilities are simple enough to use. To make a cloze card, you simply type in your sentence with the gapped words surrounded by braces, along with a special tag to signify the gap:

Ich habe einen {c1::Hund}.

In the toolbar, there’s even a button to do this for you – just highlight your word to gap, and click […].

There are even some extra tricks in there, right out of the box. For instance, you can add a hint that appears in the blank before you guess:

Ich habe einen {c1::Hund::noun}.

You can add several gaps, or sets of gaps. For instance, if you change a couple of them to c2 instead of c1, they’ll be treated as separate question sets:

Ich {c1::habe} einen {c1::Hund} und er {c2::ist} sehr {c2::lustig}!

When you come to test them, the c1 and c2 words will appear on separate cards. Really handy to drill more complex material.

As great as it is, though, it’s not perfect. For one thing, Anki hides and shows all your grouped gaps at once. Not great if you have two or three gaps on one card, and want to test your recall of them in their own right, rather than in one fell swoop.

Enhanced Cloze

Thankfully, the Anki Open Source community comes to the rescue. Anki Enhanced Cloze retains all the native functionality that Anki already did so well. But it also allows for individual hide/show within a set, adds a number of useful extra fields, a main/pseudo cloze distinction and some much nicer formatting.

A screenshot of a learning flashcard made with Anki Enhanced Cloze

Anki Enhanced Cloze

The resulting card is so much more flexible for self-testing, and looks much nicer, too. And the best thing? Card creation follows exactly the same method as Anki’s native cloze, along with the extra little hint trick. It’s a very quick way to make your cloze cards a lot more effective.

Needless to say, I’ll be spending some time this week converting my older cloze cards to the newer format. It’s one of those cases where a better way of doing things was hiding under my nose the whole time – the add-on has been around since 2021. Ah well – better late than never!

False equivalencies - the equation 1+1=3. Image from freeimages.com.

Equivocal Equivalencies : Avoiding the X=Y Trap in Language Learning

When starting out with language learning, it’s tempting to assume a one-on-one correspondence between your native and target language for everything you come across. It seems like a simple game of equivalencies: X equals Y. But you quickly learn that it’s not always as simple as that. Different languages carve the world up in subtly different ways.

It’s most obviously the case with content words. For instance, ‘sad’ in English covers both the person feeling the emotion, and the situation causing it. In Greek, it’s two words: λυπημένος (lipiménos, the former, with a Greek passive adjective ending) and λυπηρός (lipirós, the latter). Now that would have scuppered Elton John’s sad sad situation.

But function words differ, too. Grammatical categories that have lexically crumbled into each other in English remain resolutely separate in other languages. Take the word where. In English, you can use this as an interrogative:

Where is the bank?

And you can use it as a relative:

I know where you are.

Same word, two completely different functions. It leads English monolinguals to assume that they’re equivalent, identical. For sure, their function is related – both referencing place – but they’re performing different jobs, respectively standing in for missing information and joining two clauses.

False Equivalencies

Something that took me a little time to get my head around was the same situation in Scottish Gaelic. The interrogative and the relative are different words here, càit(e) and far:

Càit a bheil e? (Where is he?)
Tha fios agam far a bheil e. (I know where he is.)

Norwegian behaves in a similar way, although with a further complication. Generally, hvor is the interrogateive, and der the relative:

Hvor er du? (Where are you?)
Jeg vil være der du er. (I want to be where you are.)

But when a question is implicit, the relative is just hvor, as in English:

Jeg vil vite hvor du kommer fra. (I want to know where you come from.)

Incidentally, it’s the same situation with Norwegian then, which is variously når or da, according to the rule above.

Interesting tidbits of language, for a geek like me / us. But they serve as a reminder to delve a little deeper into usage using a resource like Wiktionary when you learn a word that seems to correspond neatly to one in your native language(s).

It may be less than half the story!

Close-up of the cover of Routledge's Hindi : An Essential Grammar (2022)

Hindi : An Essential Grammar [Review]

Hindi has sat comfortably amongst Routledge’s Essential Grammars range for some time, offering students the concise, systematic grammatical treatment the whole series is known for. The title appeared in its first edition back in 2007, so a fresh, updated version was a very welcome addition to bookshelves at the end of 2022.

Anyone familiar with my own bookish exploits will know that the Routledge Essential and Comprehensive Grammar series are close to my language lover’s heart. They’re all excellently researched reference and study works, supported throughout with authentic, real-world language. Recent editions have benefitted from an even clearer layout and eye-friendly typesetting, and the Hindi title is no exception. They’re very easy on the reader, particularly in terms of line spacing and table layout.

The book takes the familiar parts-of-speech approach, chunking grammatical elements into particularly brief, easily manageable chapters. This makes for real indexical ease, obvious from the detailed, seven-page contents section. No wading through an amorphous Nouns chapter here! But it’s great for targeted study, too; you could easily tackle a whole section in an hour-long study session, either independently or with a teacher.

As well as the usual amendments and corrections, this second edition offers extended explanations on several aspects of Hindi. These include extra material on flexible word order, ergativity, and politeness distinctions. As with other updates, such as the second edition of the Greek Essential, it’s great to see Routledge’s commitment to keeping the whole series relevant.

Script Support

The book is a winner on another important front, too: alternative script usage. To be fair, if you’re serious about learning Hindi in the long-term, then you’ll probably have started with Devanagari well before picking up this grammar. You might even have studied Devanagari before your Hindi journey like some (ahem). Devanagari is no prerequisite to learning to speak Hindi, of course, and if you’re in it for the casual dabbling, you might not have the time or inclination.

With this grammar, it’s no sweat at all. You can dive into any section of the book and read examples in Devanagari or Latin transliteration. The transliteration is extremely straightforward, too, using capitals to represent retroflex consonants, and the tilde for nasalised vowels. And the transliteration takes nothing away from the book’s commitment to both lanes; this edition still concludes with a substantial section on contemporary script usage, including current trends and recent changes.

Transliteration throughout might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s really not a given with Hindi primers. I’ve been working with Teach Yourself Hindi Tutor recently, and although it’s a truly fantastic and valuable resource, it requires proficiency in Devanagari from step one. Similarly, many beginner’s textbooks provide Latin support only so far, before switching to script after the initial chapters. For some, native script is a choice that definitely comes later on.

All in all, my verdict won’t be a surprise, considering my understandable fanboying of the series: I think this one’s just swell! For Hindi scholars, Indo-Europeanists and dabblers alike, Hindi : An Essential Grammar is a solid title in the series, substantially improved in its new edition.

ChatGPT screenshot

ChatGPT for Language Learners

The buzz around AI imaging seems only five minutes ago, yet there’s another brand new tool creating ripples. And this time, it speaks.

ChatGTP is an AI model that processes natural language, making sense of instructions and carrying them out. You could think of it as a kind of ask me anything bot, and it went truly viral at the end of last year thanks to its uncannily human-like language abilities

Of course, it didn’t take long for the language community to see the potential. The algorithm has already captured the imaginations of teachers, who are using it to great time-saving effect in generating quick and simple lesson plans. No surprise, then, that the polyglot community has followed suit in exploring the new tech’s potential for supporting language learning.

As with all tech, the best way to assess it for yourself is to get your hands dirty. In that spirit, I headed to OpenAI.com’s ChatGPT portal to see for myself what it could do. Note that this might be easier said than done right now; lately, you’re more likely to see the message ChatGPT is at capacity right now as the fellow curious inundate the platform with requests.

ChatGPT for (Language) Beginners

I started off at the place that seemed most fitting: at the beginning. What about some learning tips for a newcomer to a specific language, for a specific purpose? ChatGPT turned out solid phrase lists, and – impressively – not always the most obvious cut-and-paste choices. Accompanying advice was on the whole quite generic, but very sensible and practical:

ChatGPT screenshot

What I love is the variability; ask the same question twice, and you’re unlikely to get the same answer. There’s always some overlap, but it’s interesting to see how suggestions vary from answer to answer:

ChatGPT screenshot

Occasionally, you get a bit of extra advice for free, too:

A screenshot of a conversation where the user asks the AI engine ChatGPT for French tips for a trip to France.

ChatGPT seems really good at making what we might call potted lessons like these, which explains its popularity as a quick lesson plan generator.

Off the Beaten Path

Where it struggles, I found, was when you stray from the mainstream path – presumably, fields where the algorithm finds much scarcer material to work with. For example, Explain how tense works with Modern Hebrew verbs produced a very convincing piece of text that sounded like it came straight from a Routledge Comprehensive Grammar. Unfortunately, the Hebrew itself was an absolute hash, omitting any mention of vowel patterns, and focusing on suffixes, as if Hebrew were a typical Romance language or similar.

The problem, I’m guessing, is a paucity of sources. I’m not sure where it cobbled the points together from, but they seemed like a very bad, rookie guess at how to express tense in Hebrew, based on a very limited set of observations. Perhaps I’m being harsh; experimenting with different question phrasing might have improved things, and I’m impressed enough that it dealt so well with Greek.

It’s early days, though. Development is entering a new stage, backed by some big money, and refinements will come thick and fast. Crucially, the spark is already lit; ChatGPT has captured imaginations, and it already looks like a truly helpful and practical tool is emerging. 

Have you taken your first steps with ChatGPT as a language learner? Let us know how you got on in the comments!

Christmas in Macduff, Aberdeenshire

Merry Language Christmas

And it’s here! A day of cheer, jolliness, rest and restoration for many celebrating Christmas. And, perhaps for once, the languages take a back seat (for a very short while). That is, between the language learning book gifts (both old and brand new).

It’s a time (if you’ve time, between presents and Christmas dinner), to consume some Christmas content not only from home media, but from your target language countries. As a pre-Internet kid fascinated by languages, somehow managing to access TV or video from abroad seemed almost a Christmas miracle. These days, it’s as easy as opening a browser. Trying never to take that for granted, I’ve been dipping in and out of NRK‘s offerings over the holidays. It’s definitely a time to feel grateful for all the opportunities we have as learners today.

Likewise, 90s Rich would go to some lengths to procure foreign-language pop CDs, let alone any Christmas fare. It was either find a willing penpal, or travel to the country itself. Now? I can gorge to my heart’s content by flicking on Spotify. Spoilt for choice by it all, I’ve discovered gems that have taken their place comfortably and naturally next to Merry Christmas Everyone.

Christmas of Moments Past

And as a new year approaches, it’s time to take stock of all the language moments we’ve had over the past year. For me, it was a Brum full of languages that took the prize. But it’s also the little moments of spotting languages everywhere, like finding quirky, multilingual language learning curios, enjoying the linguistic shenanigans of Henry Higgins in a brilliant production of My Fair Lady, or cheering on Westlife’s Nicky Byrne as a fan taught him what Gute Besserung meant in a card he read out live on stage.

Westlife’s Nicky Byrne reads a get well card for Mark Feehily from a German fan at a concert in Birmingham, December 2022. Photo by Richard West-Soley

Westlife’s Nicky Byrne reads a get well card for Mark Feehily from a German fan at a concert in Birmingham, December 2022

Whatever your language moments of 2022, we hope you look back with contentment and fulfilment. And, as 2023 approaches, with a sense of excitement for what is yet to come.

Merry Christmas to all celebrating – and a great 2023 to all!

Charlie the dog feeling the Christmas cheer in front of a plate of cakes, December 2022.

Charlie the dog wishing all a Merry Christmas 2022 – and hoping for a cake or three.

An array of neon signs of nonsense words on a wall. Image generated by the Stable Diffusion AI algorithm.

Polyglot in the Machine: AI for Language Learners

AI is the order of the day lately. Have you seen how many fantasy photos have been filling up Instagram lately? Thanks to the now wide availability of open source AI algorithms, some powerful computing power is in the hands of users courtesy of apps like Dawn AI and Lensa. Type in a few words, and the computer does the painting.

It’s new tech, opening new possibilities alongside new ethical challenges that users are gradually becoming sensitive to. But the benefit to individual language learners here is apparent very little imagination stretch. First and foremost, these algorithms parse human language. So why not, for instance, type in some target language – say, ein Hund mit grünen Augen (a dog with green eyes) – and see if the picture matches what you meant to say? It should act as a kind of machine validation that the language you produce makes sense.

It already works to a point with some languages. Models like Dall-E (seen at work below in the web-based Craiyon.com) cope reasonably well with non-complex, non-English prompts.

A screenshot from Craiyon.com, a web-based AI image generator built on DALL-E Mini.

It can be hit and miss, but Craiyon understood my German for the most part!

So it works – up to a point. The current stumbling block is linguistic and cultural bias. For a start, models like Stable Diffusion were initially developed and trained with English input. And as one web experimenter shows, non-English results can leave a lot to be desired, with a definite advantage for Western European languages. This isn’t surprising, given that the technique samples from pre-existing web content; the predominance of certain languages means there is a lot more of that to learn from.

Ai Work In Progress

It’s clear these techniques are nascent and emerging, as most casual users will admit. Even if English is your target learning language, for example, images can frequently be so off the mark that you may question whether it understood a single word of your prompt.

Things are improving, though, especially with regular updates to the Stable Diffusion model. There are even a couple of language augmentation projects floating around in beta, including. one that adds ‘Japanglish’ capabilities to the current algorithm, overcoming one particular cultural blindspot.

And, if you have the skills, you can add to many ongoing open source projects to extend and finesse the capabilities of AI algorithms. I’m sad to report that that isn’t in my skillset, but it’ll be interesting to follow how this develops over the coming months!

Christmas is coming! Make it a language learning one.

Christmas Books for Language Lovers : 2022 Edition!

Christmas is coming, and the books are getting fat – with expectations that kindly language learners will come along and buy them.

A strained metaphor, I’ll admit. But if you’re still searching for that special Christmas gift for the linguist in your life – even if that happens to be you – then 2022 saw a few new and updated titles from language course publishers that have always been good to us.

Here are some of my favourite stocking fillers of the year.

Routledge

Ever a mainstay of self-paced language learning, Routledge released a welcome new edition of Colloquial Irish this year. For sure, that made for a quieter year than 2021, which saw new Chinese, Hebrew and Zulu editions, but it’s nonetheless great to see the Irish course with a new lick of paint. MP3 listening material for all courses is available online, too, if you fancy a taster of what they have to offer.

In other news, the publisher also released a couple of brand new titles in its Comprehensive and Essential Grammar series. What makes this particularly exciting for polyglots and language aficionados is the off-the-beaten-track nature of the languages themselves.

Principally, the recently extinct Máku language of Venezuela and Brazil now has a Comprehensive Grammar thanks to the hugely important work of researchers working with the last two speakers. It’s an incredible opportunity to explore a linguistic heritage very nearly lost forever. In the Essential series, Filipino now counts amongst the ranks, along with a brand new edition of the Hindi grammar.

Teach Yourself

It’s been a busy year for Teach Yourself with Olly Richards’ growing set of graded readers. There’s been a flurry of updates and new editions, with Irish added to the beginners’ range (Irish learners are particularly lucky this year, it seems). Japanese gets the intermediate treatment, while Italian and Spanish get a whole new volume of beginners’ stories. All very welcome Christmas stocking fodder.

In Three Months

2022 also saw the reissue of some familiar old friends of the language learning world. In January, DK freshened up its in Three Months range with smart new typesetting and jackets. Under the Hugo banner for several decades, the courses are still solid introductions or refreshers, now with free online audio. And they look pretty nifty in their new clothes – not the most important aspect of course, but we do love a smart new book!

These days, the DK in Three Months range now focuses on a few mainstream learning languages rather than the original Hugo set (which you still pick up for a steal at second-hand outlets). These new editions are available in colourfully-bound Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish versions.

What a great little cache of 2022 releases, for Christmas or otherwise. Which titles have I missed? Leave your language learning gifting ideas in the comments!

You can teach an old dog new tricks! Image from freeimages.com

Old Dog, New Tricks

Have you ever learnt a new trick in your target language, and promptly gone to town with it, trying to crowbar it into every conversation?

It’s the excitable puppy incarnation of the old use it or lose it adage. You might call it use it… and use it… and use it. The trait isn’t uncommon amongst students of languages – or otherwise –  when there’s a particularly passionate connection to the subject.

For instance, I know one wee chap who will excitedly regurgitate new dinosaur facts ad infinitum to his very patient parents. My own not-so-little brother will hold me hostage to myriad beekeeping facts (his latest fad) when I visit of late. And I, myself, will bore my own friends rigid with newfound oddities of grammar and etymology. (No, the behaviour doesn’t wane with age!)

It really is one of the joys of learning to (over)share your new skills.

How’s Tricks?

It’s in my mind recently thanks to a bit of Gaelic new tricks magic I’ve learnt. Some months ago, I came across a really interesting quirk of Gaelic word order that bears a striking resemblance to German syntax. Namely, verb phrases place their head to the right of the noun phrase in certain conditions:

Gaelic: ‘S urrainn dhomh am biadh a chòcaireachd. (is ability to-me the food to cook)
German: Ich kann das Essen kochen. (I can the food cook)
English: I can cook the food.

We’d not covered it in class at that point, so I filed it away mentally as an interesting fact to revisit later.

I didn’t have to wait long. One of this term’s big ideas for our group was that very phenomenon. We’ve spent lesson after lesson having fun with it (in fact, some of the most fun lessons we’ve had, making up humorous sentences based on whacky scenarios!).

The thing is, I’m now using inversion everywhere – not just in class, but in casual chat too. I’m also spotting it everywhere in my reading too, as if a spotlight has been shone on it. It’s as if inversion has taken possession of the new tricks cortex in my brain, neurons glowing at the slightest excitation.

It reminds me of that explosion of expressivity when you first learn to form the past tense in a language. Suddenly you want to use it everywhere to talk about what you did, what you’ve been doing, what you used to do… And it’s one of the greatest signs that you really love the subject, or language, you’ve chosen to dedicate your time to.

Do you recognise new tricks syndrome in your own language learning? What new linguistic toys are you currently playing with? Let us know in the comments!

Twitter - has that bird flown? Image of a peafowl from FreeImages.com.

Twitter for Language Learners : Has That Bird Flown?

There’s been a true Twitter storm of late – only the object of controversy is Twitter itself. Will it survive? Will it even be a place we want to stay if it does? Whether the doomsayers are right or not, it’s given plenty of us the jitters, leading to some (perhaps premature) tearful goodbyes on the platform this week.

It’s no surprise that it engenders such strong feelings amongst us. Language lovers and polyglots have found a friendly refuge and comfy home in the #langtwt nest. It’s such a part of the glue of our community, that it’s hard to imagine polyglot life without it. But hiding there all along, in plain sight, have been some pretty good alternative community tools, if we need them.

So where else might we get all cosy and snug?

MASTODON

Let’s start with perhaps the Twitteriest alternative of all, the decentralised microblogging network Mastodon. A quick glance through my own follows suggests that this is where most are setting up their contingency tents.

Mastodon is possibly the most seamless to migrate to for former Twitter users. The toot-posting interface is strikingly familiar, and post-signalling is supported by hashtags, just as the bluebird likes it. Ironically, #langtwt has some traction on Mastodon already, although it’s only a matter of time before the steadily growing community spawns some more appropriate tags.

What bamboozles many with Mastodon is the idea of servers. These are basically interconnected nodes where your account ‘lives’, giving you the second part of your address (mine, for instance, is @richwestsoley@mastodon.scot). There’s a brilliant explainer of that at this link.

The independence of these nodes is a big upside for those decrying the autocratic turn of Twitter. There is no single Mastodon authority, all servers being equal. That makes the threat of future takeovers unlikely, if this is your greatest concern.

INSTAGRAM

Instagram polyglots will be sore from all the eye-rolling at this one; the photo-sharing platform already has a long tradition of learner posters, including many of the polyglot circuit celebs like Richard Simcott.

The universality of hashtag conventions makes this another no-brainer switch if you’re on the digital move from Twitter. All the usual suspects like #LanguageLearning are on there. The only downside is the need for every post to be attached to a picture upload, although for the shy, isn’t that just another great excuse to post lots of course book and notepad snaps?

REDDIT

Reddit is what you might call your old-fashioned internet forum, rebooted. We’re getting further from Twitter-style microblog territory here, but anyone who remembers the internet from the turn of the millennium will probably feel a warm and fuzzy nostalgia amongst the threads on offer.

Reddit already has large groups like r/polyglot, but the forum style can make these behemoths a little chaotic (as with the similar Facebook group). It’s in smaller, more specialist language groups that I find a better level of interaction and community, such as r/gaidhlig for all things Gaelic, and the system of upvotes and downvotes is genuinely effective at helping higher-quality posts bubble up to the top.

DISCORD, TELEGRAM and WHATSAPP

I’ve lumped these three together as they share a USP: the ease of creating small, invite-only communities. The exclusivity is a huge bonus in creating and maintaining the group as a safe space for like-minded learners. The rub is that closed groups are by their nature not public-facing, and rely on you to do the work to gather friends and colleagues to them.

Telegram and WhatsApp need little introduction, being the phone messaging apps many of us already use daily. But I’ve had some lovely experiences in closed groups run on these platforms, including a lively and fun Telegram group run by my Polish tutor, and a Gaelic chat group that occasionally also meets at the pub.

Discord, on the other hand, is quite a different beast, having emerged as a means for the online gaming community to socialise. As such, there’s a distinct techie look and feel to it, which appeals a lot to my geekish side; its high-contrast colours remind me of computer days of yore. I’ve found myself live-commenting Eurovision in one set up by a Twitter friend, and can testify to how gemütlich it can feel!

Branching Out

I’m bound to have missed some off this list, whether they’re biggies or nascent tools in the pipeline. TikTok, of course, has to get an honorary mention for its burgeoning community of language learners and teachers. Meetup too deserves checking out, especially since it exists to connect those online community tools with offline socialising. 

It’s worth rounding off here by reaffirming that the Twitter bird has not yet flown. #langtwt is still alive and well. And enough people are hanging around to keep the community buzzing and vibrant. Saying that, there’s no harm in branching out. After all, birds can call many trees their home.

Whether you up sticks or stay put, happy learning!

Magic of the Mundane : Language Learning from the Inbox Clutter

We language learning enthusiasts can turn the most mundane, dull items into shiny, valuable objects of curiosity and enrichment – much like cats and dogs frequently manage. It’s a very special gift we have.

I’m not saying we can play for hours on end with a cardboard box or some wrapping paper. I’m talking about the mundanity of digital life, particularly those parts of it which normally leave us a little fuming.

Take electronic newsletters. Yes, those all-too-frequent, clog-up-your-inbox ad mail-shots from companies, websites and other organisations you (usually) provided with your email address in weaker moments. If your inbox resembles mine in any way, you probably have more of this automated, targeted (but totally solicited) junk than emails from actual human beings.

Predictably, when I get these in English, my reaction usually ranges from blasé curiosity and a quick skim through, to mild annoyance and immediate deletion.

But add a foreign language to the mix, and they’re magically transformed. They’re now language learning resources ™️! <cue amazed oohs and aahs>

From the Mundane to the Sublime

It’s a magic trick that can add appeal to the most prosaic of inbox items. This week, I found myself transfixed by an email ad for branded pots and pans from my favourite Greek TV chef, Akis. Do I have any interest in cooking? That’s debatable. But is it a whole lot of geekish fun learning words for specialist kitchen utensils in Greek? You bet.

From the mundane to the sublime : an image promoting Greek chef Akis Petretzikis’ range of pots and pans.
From the mundane to the sublime : an image promoting Greek chef Akis Petretzikis’ range of pots and pans.

If you’re looking to find the value in the e-marketing chaff, it’s easy enough to seek out these kind of target language bulletins nowadays. Call up the websites of your favourite brands or personalities, add your details, and click submit. Instant brand servitude with a dash of language learning thrown in. A bit of pop culture surfing doesn’t hurt, either.

But just to avoid over-gorging on that language learning feast and passing out from junkbox marketing fatigue, consider using email rules to siphon them off to a special folder (or even a dedicated email just for target language newsletter clutter). It’s an enthusiasm-saver if you end up signing up for a couple too many. And we’ve all had too much at the buffet before, after all.