Dictation exercise in Icelandic by Richard West-Soley

Dictation Inspiration : Back to basics with listening comprehension

Sometimes a really helpful technique is staring you in the face, and you fail to see it. Or you see it, and you fail to use it, for whatever reason. So it was for me with dictation, the wonderfully straightforward listening activity that other language learners employ with great success.

Dictation – or Diktando, as many know it – needs no introduction. It is one of the simplest language exercises around. Simply listen, and transcribe. It is the ultimate in cheap, accessible techniques, too – you just need a source (a podcast will do), and pen and paper.

But, for some reason, I had completely ignored it up to now.

Ignorance is no excuse, to my shame. For a start, Linguascope has featured a dictation exercise in each of its Beginner units for years – and I even developed it. Legions of kids had benefitted from my use of it in a resource, but somehow, it was not for me. Perhaps it was that association with the beginner level that put me off. I want to maintain and improve a set of languages beyond A1 for the most part, and dictation always seemed like a kind of pre-learning, preparatory, elementary game, something that put sounds before meaning.

But that was exactly what I needed.

Listening denial

I struggle with listening. I am certainly not alone in that, and I gain a lot from listening to teachers speak about improving students’ listening skills in the classroom. But at the same time as acknowledging that it is my toughest challenge, I still chug along in a bit of denial. It will just click of its own accord, I think. It will all fall into place. Maybe I just need to listen to a few more podcasts. I just need a bit more passive exposure.

It is partly the tendency to run before we can walk that leads us to these places. But what I really needed was a back-to-basics, purposeful, sounds first approach to listening. And dictation was sitting there, beckoning.

Dictation inspiration

Luckily enough, the activity popped up on my feed recently via one of the community’s most popular voices, Lindie Botes. I spotted a tweet in which she shared a podcast dictation she was working on, and was impressed and intrigued:

Here was dictation in use at a higher level, by someone with the same ambitious language goals as I have. Lindie’s approaches always command a lot of respect in the community. So, I thought, perhaps this did merit a revisit.

Spurred on, I chose two languages I speak reasonably well (B1-ish), but struggle to get past the listening barrier with: Icelandic and Polish. I set aside some time in the week for dictation tasks and selected my materials. It was easy to find sources to unleash myself on. For a start, I could pick from any of the woefully neglected podcasts that I subscribe to and never get round to listening to.

Warts and all

One thing quickly became clear: dictation really exposes your listening weaknesses. Now I understand what I was afraid of. All your difficulties, your neglect and your lack of practice are laid bare, warts and all. But finally, you see them – and only then can you work on them.

The thing about close listening is that you pay intense attention to the ebb and flow of words in the target language. You get to know how they run into each other, how they affect each other in terms of coarticulation. I realised I could know every word and every syntactical turn in a sentence, yet still not catch it until the fourth or fifth listen. For a grammar geek, in the habit of examining the nuts and bolts in isolation, this task was clearly well overdue.

But on the upside, another thing came as a complete surprise: the mindful nature of longer dictation exercises. That intense focus draws you into something of a flow state after a few minutes. Before you know it, a look at the clock confirms half an hour has passed without you noticing. Rather than the boring, mindless activity I assumed it to be, it was positively absorbing.

In fact, it took me back to my teenage years as a fanatical Eurovision nerd, pausing and rewinding cassette-taped songs to scribble down barely understood lyrics. I would take hours to get them right, no doubt ending up with some half-accurate, half-phonetic mush I could at least try to sing at the piano. I still warble some of those misheard lyrics in the shower, even today.

Letting go of perfectionism

But that, of course, is one of the biggest lessons dictation has to offer us. Aiming for perfection is more likely to scupper than to assist. Because, despite all of the technological crutches like playback looping and variable speed, you will struggle with some phrases.

In fact,  I found that slowing down to 50% often hindered comprehension. This is because sounds that are articulated quickly together change their quality. We are used to hearing that occur at normal speed, but at a snail’s pace, sounds can just sound weird.

For instance, I was certain that one Icelandic phrase was undir röklunum, searching desperately for the meaning of the non-existent second word. Finally, I played the phrase at normal speed, and realised that it was actually undir jöklunum (under the glaciers), with the -r affecting the quality of the following j-. This is a nice illustration of how over-focus on word-level language can hamper progress.

Dictation exercise in Icelandic by Richard West-Soley

One of my far-from-perfect dictation exercises in Icelandic

For a perfectionist like me, dictation can also be helpful in diminishing the pathological need for 100%. If you get stuck down a phonological rabbit hole, you must simply move on, else the whole activity grinds to a halt. Your heart will sink the first few times you leave a gap, but more and more you find that the following material fills in enough context to go back and complete the rogue snippets.

Likewise, dictation involves letting go of ‘neat work’ compulsions. I am a stickler for a nice neat page of writing (no doubt the former teacher coming out in me). As you can see from my scrawl, dictation necessitates rather a lot of amendments and crossings out. You have to accept the rough with the smooth. Perhaps the boldest claim yet: dictation, not only great language practice, but also a cure for OCD! 

Dictation exercise in Polish by Richard West-Soley

Dictation exercise in Polish

In short, I am a convert. I am becoming a better listener for giving this language learning staple a fair chance. I will continue with these exercises, perhaps even as a daily tactic. Just a regular ten minutes or so in weaker languages could make all the difference.

Is dictation one of your language learning strategies? Do you have particular techniques or a novel take on the exercise you find useful? Let us know in the comments!

Kigali Conference Centre. Image by By Raddison - https://www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-kigali, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74779948

Unhiding African Languages : Redressing the bias

It is fairly uncontroversial to state that we live in troubled times right now. Try as many of us might to separate languages and politics, it is impossible to keep our neat, studious worlds sealed from the social shifts taking place.

Current discourse around racism in particular encourages us all to interrogate our own philosophies and world views. As open-minded, curious language learners, we might naively assume we are more immune to cultural bias than most. We point to the fact that we explore, consume, and learn about other cultures to become something more worldly and understanding.

It is true that language is a periscope to peer over the wall and see lives lived differently. But we fall foul of one big, structural fault:

An entire continent is hidden from our view.

The near absence of African languages from the online community is a serious blindspot for all of us. For example, take the Niger-Congo languages. Just short of a billion people speak them. They represent the third largest language family in the world. But they are practically invisible in those social media circles that celebrate language learning.

African languages and Western bias

We might try to defend this in several ways. Chiefly, there is “I simply have no interest in them“. That view, however, is difficult to separate from a position of power in a colonial backstory that devalued African languages from the outset. As universities opened in Sub-Sarahan Africa, they were in the Western mould. Teaching and research was – and continues to be, despite activism – overwhelmingly anglophone or francophone. The resulting lack of academic activity around indigenous languages means that African languages are simply not represented within Western education systems to the extent that other foreign languages are. Students – and adult learners – lack the exposure to them needed to spark any initial interest.

The knock-on effect is a lack of accessible learning resources for African languages. Check any bookshop – aside from the odd text like Colloquial Swahili, where would you start if you wanted to learn, say, Luganda or Kinyarwanda?

And this lack of mainstream text books is more than simply an inconvenience. How many of us, for instance, have spotted a potential new language project after chancing upon it during a bookshop browse? Estonian, spoken by just over a million people, might catch your eye as you peruse the shelves in Waterstones. But Igbo, with around 18 million speakers, is most likely out of the race before the start whistle sounds.

We might also try to counter the argument by pointing to the visibility of other, non-Indo-European groups in language study. Japanese, Korean or Chinese, perhaps. But then, these are large, prosperous societies with considerably more prestige capital and global clout than African nations. They do not struggle for global visibility.

So if the issue is structural, it is wrong to talk of any individual fault. It is the system we are embedded in. But we can do something to push back against it.

Bursting the bubble

If institutionalised content is not available, turn to the people. Many African content creators have used YouTube as a means to open up their languages to the world. From the brilliant Made In Igbo channel, to the personal projects of others in Kinyarwanda and Luganda, great, free content is just asking to be liked and shared.

And of course, it is not just about the words. Through exploring and interacting with online content, you catch glimpses of a whole other world. Music, film, fashion – all otherwise absent from our mainstream media. I came across this great Rwandan pop song via a short tutorial video on the channel theoisback:

Just compare the invisibility of this media with the cultural exports from richer, more powerful regions, which find their way into every nook of our lives. It is not a question of quality, but of the power to be seen.

You can break through the book barrier, too. If you prefer to explore more traditional course materials rather than online resources, then the Live Lingua project is an eye-opener. As a collection of materials from decades of language teaching for the US Peace Corps, it offers courses on languages you never see on the High Street. Just like YouTube videos, they also include cultural insights that begin to fill in the gaps of our bubble world view.

What difference will it make?

As single actors in a colossal, ingrained system, we may well wonder what difference we can possibly make. What good will it do to undo the institutional invisibility of African languages in our individual lives?

But our greatest tool is our community – our networks to discuss, share, inspire. Dabblers, try some Swahili (Duolingo has a good basic introduction) and let others know about it. Find authentic content you enjoy and share it on social media. Together, let us raise the visibility profile – and prestige – of African languages as much as possible.

When we do journey outside our bubble, it enriches us. We realise that there are a million and one ways to ‘do’ language, and we barely even scratch the surface with the narrow selection on our path. But, ultimately, we learn the lesson of co-humanity. We produce language using the same linguistic building blocks, the same brains, the same bodies. As human beings, there is so much more that unites us than divides us.

Certainly, Africa is not the only hidden, underrepresented part of the linguistic globe. We could have the very same argument about South American indigenous languages, aboriginal Australian languages and so on. But at this juncture in history, redressing this particular imbalance seems critical, pertinent, urgent.

In the face of our current societal challenges, it might seem such a tiny thing to do. But it is something.

Sunlight through the clouds. Image from FreeImages.com

The Power of One Deep Breath

Content, content, content. So often, the sole focus is on what we study. We hear a lot less about the setting, the timing and the flow. But these can have a huge impact on learning success. And something as simple as a long, deep breath and a moment of pause can be the difference between successful study and an uphill slog.

I hit my latest brick wall this week. Studying, working, eating, relaxing in the same place was taking its toll. There was just no ebb and flow, no contrast between functions.

And contrast is important. Human beings need variety. We crave perpetual motion. Lockdown robs us of that, and even the most committed of us can struggle without the punctuation of life’s usual rhythms, the momentum of an ever-changing background.

It hardly helps that for many language enthusiasts, the arcs of motion usually swing well beyond house, home, library and coffee shop. There is solidarity on social media, where once avid travellers console each other over the Covid wing-clipping. A static, motionless life can have a stalling effect on motivation.

It is time to take a breath of fresh air.

Catching your breath

Fortunately, inspiration was close at hand. I am lucky enough to count a bunch of wonderful professional coaches amongst my friends. This enthusiastic group is adept at helping others overcome stumbling blocks in the way of achieving their goals. I recognise the power of good coaching – I have first-hand experience of how working one-to-one with a coach can bring great results in language learning.

Through one of these wonderful colleagues*, I recently came across a simple space clearing exercise. Now space is what I desperately needed. With every task, every chore, every project running into a big amorphous mass, it felt like there was no separation, no flow. I was going straight from household chores to work tasks to close study, but without the usual change of scene or mental breather. Mental baggage from one task would hang around in the next. 

Logjam.

The antidote uses deep, focused breathing to clear the air – quite literally – before a focused session. Essentially, it is a forced stop and reset before changing gear. My coaching colleague uses it to great effect at the start of his coaching one-to-ones, but it is just as helpful before a study bout.

The technique is simple. Sitting comfortably at your workspace, close your eyes. Inhale deeply three times, exhaling each breath in a slow, controlled way. Focus closely on the cool air entering your lungs, then exiting, warmed by your body heat. Then, take in another long, deep breath, and hold it for two or three seconds before exhaling. When you are ready, open your eyes.

You just added a bit of sorely needed punctuation to your routine.

The whole thing takes less than a minute and requires zero practice or tuition. I have tried it when switching between work and study over the past week, and it is an excellent quick fix. It eases the transition from one mode to another, creating a stopgap, a fresh start, and minimising that tendency to carry across mental baggage and distractions.

Mindful learning

Of course, this is is the bread and butter of mindfulness – a general approach to mental wellbeing deemed effective enough be run as part of student support programmes in a number of UK schools. Fans of mindful apps like Headspace will likewise be very familiar with these kinds of techniques using breathing to slow down, step back and reset the mindset.

That said, there can be a certain reluctance amongst many to try out these techniques. I should know – I was initially sceptical myself. With an eye on the soley practical sphere, the learning content alone, spending time getting the mind ready to learn retreats into the background a little. It can also feel – let’s admit it – a bit silly sitting at your desk with your eyes closed when you first try it.

But the space clearing technique shows that mindful approaches need not take up any significant amount of time, or even require lots of background research. A couple of deep breath – that really is all there is to it. No long-winded, complicated techniques to master.

And even if the desk-breathing technique is not for you, you can create your own punctuation points. Jog. Do five minutes of simple stretching. Make a coffee. Have a bop around the living room to your favourite song.

Anything can be your one deep breath, as long as it clears your head space.

*Big thanks to Simon for introducing me to the space clearing technique!

A row of old books. Image from freeimages.com

Social Bookending : Scripting conversation start and end points for better flow

Tim Burton tells us that every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or was it Jean-Luc Godard – or even Aristotle? Anyway, whoever – and whenever – it was, they had a pretty solid, if obvious, point.

Language enthusiasts face a very particular struggle, and one very close to my heart. It’s that compulsion to run before we can walk. This is not necessarily a completely negative trait. For one thing, it demonstrates our high ambitions and commitment to the subject. But in a one-to-one session when you just want to focus on your favourite topics, it can leave you being middle-heavy – all filling and no bread, in sandwich terms.

For instance, my brain is usually so focused on the material I wanted to cover in conversation (music, language, politics) that I am regularly caught on the hop when switching into intro and outro – or social niceties – mode. The winding up and the winding down of conversation are things I just assume will happen of their own accord. But they rarely do.

First confession: that’s chiefly because I spend so little time on them as a learner.

For me, at least, the reason is simple: learning chitchat is just not as interesting as the meaty, topical stuff. It’s the reason I’m always so tempted to leap three or four chapters in when I start a new language book. We all want to be rootin’, tootin’, high-falutin’ fluent speakers, and so we grab at the highest branches.

That’s totally understandable.

Social bookends: real-life framing

That said, it’s impossible to ignore that social dimension. Sudden starts and full-stops just don’t happen very often in real-life conversation. We don’t meet friends for coffee and immediately launch into a diatribe on the state of things, before disappearing to our next appointment.

Just as we bookend our coffee shop gossip with social glue, our language lessons should also reflect this real-life framing. After all, we hope eventually to communicate with other humans using the foreign language. Part of everyday communication is all that built-in, rote-learnt social interaction – the script of interaction. Effective language lessons must teach us to operate fully within these social scripts, as well as equip us with the vocab and grammar knowhow to decline verbs and rattle off sophisticated arguments. In other words, to operate as living, breathing, social entities within the language environment.

Now, it sometimes feels like talking openly about difficulties and failings is anathema in our online learning communities. It tends so often to be about the biggest, the brightest, the best. So another confession:

I really struggle with the language of social interaction.

Motivating myself to spend time learning various ways of saying hello, how are you doing, goodbye, is not my favourite thing. Smalltalk, even in English, does not happen for me without a lot of coaxing. But after countless lessons fumbling and floundering at the start and the finish, I realised how inescapable it all is.

Curating social scripts

I needed a way in to fix this. A means to make it more appealing. So, as a remedy, I appealed to my inner collector. This is the side of my personality that revels in curating lists of vocabulary and learning arcane grammatical exceptions from two-inch thick tomes. Obsessive, geekish list-writer Rich to the rescue!

I scoured dialogues in textbook dialogues. I mind-mapped the phrases I use in my native language and sought translations of them using resources like Tatoeba. I used subtitles to mine intro and outro phrases from TV and film (although it’s shocking how often phone conversations end abruptly on screen, as opposed to real life!).

There are myriad places to find social glue. When you do, note them all down in one place. (I probably don’t need to add that I use Evernote to store mine.)

A list of social niceties in Icelandic

Learning to ‘do’ social language (my working document for Icelandic)

It’s not just about ‘bye’ and ‘see you’. It’s about the extra stuff like ‘take care!’, ‘keep well’, ‘have a nice weekend’, ‘say hello to X’, ‘enjoy your evening’. It’s all the padding that makes start and end transitions a bit friendlier, a bit less abrupt, a bit more natural.

You may well ask why I still need to work from a list. Well, this stuff just doesn’t happen naturally for me at all. Some people are natural social butterflies. I just get lost in the detail sometimes – even in my own language!

When the time comes, I pop my list up, and have before me lots of ready-made one-liners I can use to ease in or wind things down nicely. And, eventually (hopefully!), these interjections become second nature.

Right under your nose

Yes, this might seem like pretty obvious advice. But aren’t the most obvious things the easiest to overlook? Having a bank of starters and finishers at your fingertips can make lessons so much brighter and less uncomfortable, particularly if you use 100% target language with your teacher.

Students, start your own crib notes to start and finish your lessons smoothly. And teachers, help your students to level up in these skills. Banish that social awkwardness by learning your lines like the linguistic actor you are training to become.

Soon you’ll be running like a well-oiled social machine!

The Parthenon at the Acropolis, Athens. Image from freeimages.com.

Eating my way back to Greek

Sometimes an old, long-neglected language project will rise up and demand attention again. “Remember me, old friend?” The reasons can be many. But the call can be hard to resist. Over the past few weeks, my former passion for Greek bubbled up from the linguistic Lethe, that river of oblivion where loved ones drift off to be forgotten. And the trigger? Food. This is fast becoming a theme…

Now, this taste for all things Greek is nothing new. I was always a bit of an unabashed Hellenohile. Some of my earliest solo expeditions, learning about the world as a travel-mad youth, were to Greece.  In fact, my first trip abroad on my own was island-hopping back in 1997, armed with just a one-way ticket and a rucksack. Admittedly, it wasn’t a complete success – I had money stolen from my debit card and had to come home early and dejected (although a happy ending: everything was reimbursed by the bank on my return, thankfully). 

Richard West-Soley in Athens, Greece in 1997

On a Greek adventure in 1997.

But naive rookie tourist mishaps aside, there is no denying the touch of paradise to the region. Cast an eye over a Santorini or Mykonos sunset and you’ll know exactly what I mean.

And yes, Greece and Cyprus have brought some of my all-time favourite entries to the Eurovision Song Contest. You know me by now – Eurovision is always somewhere in the language learning mix. Before I even began to learn in earnest, I knew a host of terms of varying usefulness. These included αγάπη (love), άνοιξη (spring), αστέρι (star), ελπίδα (hope), Φωτιά (fire), θάλασσα (sea), σταφύλι (grape) and all the other lovely things people tended to sing about in Greek at Eurovision.

Yes, songs about grapes. Food was connecting me to Greek even back then.

Greek Cobbler

In fits and starts over the years, I cobbled together what you might call holiday Greek. Although I probably never strayed beyond A1, I have always been pretty proud of that achievement. After all, it was one of my very first self-taught language projects. Very few materials were available besides phrasebooks and basic primers back then, mostly tailored to holidaymakers. But it was enough for me to Get By In Greek, as one of those 90s titles went.

Learning Greek as a purely functional, transactional language for travelling meant that there was rarely much academic rigour to that study. But as a result, when I do come to use it, even today it seems more serviceable and everyday useful than some of my more ‘serious’ languages.

Also – and this is a consequence of the performance pressure we put ourselves under with close, considered study – I think I might even be a little less nervous about speaking a language I openly admit is (very) imperfect but useable. If it works when popping to the φούρνος (bakery), that’s enough for me.

A Taste of Greek

But back to food. And there is honestly nothing quite like Greek food. It is arguably the best comfort cuisine in the world. And a chance TV encounter earlier this year stirred that long-time love of Hellenic language and culture.

Akis Petretzikis already has a big following in Greece. So the BBC show Ready, Steady, Cook must have seemed like the perfect springboard to a more international following.

And he is ready for it – he has a ton of content online, from his own recipe website to the full gamut of social media feeds, full of foodspiration. But as it stands, much of that is in Greek, tailoring for that faithful home audience.

So if you really want to access his edible world of wonder, you would do well to dig out the Ελληνικά.

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Akis Petretzikis (@akis_petretzikis) on

As far as social media is concerned, live content streaming is one of the best and most accessible sources of authentic materials for language learners. Watching in real time is a brilliant way to feel connected to your target language right now, in the real world. And throughout lockdown, Akis* has been live-streaming from his kitchen regularly, making – and eating – the tastiest samples of Greek cooking for his fans. Let me tell you, it is hard not to get hooked back into the country and culture when a plateful of πορτοκαλόπιτα (orange pie) is staring you in the face.

*other Greek chefs are available. See this for starters!

Not to mention the fact that Greek, at least to my ear, comes across as one of the most clearly articulated European languages. It has a staccato, precise flow that somehow matches your perception of the word written on the page, without everything mushing together as it comes out of the mouth.

(As an aside – I have no academic backup at all to claim this of Greek. I’d love to hear of research into the clarity of Greek speech patterns if you are aware of any!)

As a perpetual Greek beginner, this makes it easier to pick out familiar words in normal, free-flowing and sometimes very complicated speech. Listening to those feeds, that handful of familiar words just pops out: γάλα (milk), φράουλα (strawberry), ψωμί (bread)… and it is so satisfying to feel like you understand. Even just a little.

Greek Revival

So whats does my Greek revival look like? Well, a bit of Duolingo now and again is a good (if predictable) start. Appropriately, food vocab one of the first things you’ll learn in many of these courses. That has been immediately useful!

Brushing up on Greek food vocab in Duolingo

You probably know what comes next, fellow language enthusiast. With the Greek bug taking hold, out came all the old books, including one of my first ever language learning purchases, Linkword Greek.

But was that enough? Of course not. My copy of Essential Greek Grammar arrived in the post today. Incorrigible, I am.

Aren’t books almost as delicious as food, though?

Has anything inspired you back to your language learning roots lately? Please let us know in the comments below or on Twitter!

Books for learning Greek

Out come the old books.

A clipboard. Image from freeimages.com.

Keep tabs on your efforts with language learning report cards

Now, if you hadn’t noticed, I am a complete control freak. But in a good way… honest! Well, most of the time. And especially when it comes to language learning.

The “good way”, of course, mostly involves tracking how regularly and effectively I learn. I am beholden to a raft of productivity tools like Evernote, Wunderlist (now Microsoft To Do) and even good, old-fashioned paper-and-pen lists to keep track.

Lists are my friends.

To do – or to have done?

Mainly, my focus has always been on forward planning. The lists I write are study to do lists on the whole – things I plan to do or feel I should be doing. But lately, I felt the need for something a bit more retrospective. A have done list, if you will.

How much am I actually achieving?

The need has been even greater under COVID-19 lockdown. Lethargy and indolence wheedle their way in during times of slowdown, and days disappear into the abyss. What is the best way to stay accountable to yourself when faced with an amorphous calendar of days in?

A really simple solution is to keep a language learning report card on each of your active and maintenance projects.

Keeping tabs

The language report card is, in short, just a retrospective diary of what you have worked on recently. I find the system works best on a monthly basis, with a separate document for each language project. Months make for quite a natural dividing line, with enough days to track and spot patterns in your learning, but not so many that planning for the next one seems aeons away.

To get started, simply fill in a few lines day by day to record the study resources you have used, and for how long. Include all your immersion activities too, even the odd five minutes listening to the radio here and there.

Engage in regular housekeeping of your language learning report cards.  Cast a frequent glance down the list throughout the month to monitor your progress and reassure yourself that yes, you are actually doing quite a lot. Or, conversely, that hmm, you might need to fit a bit of extra [language X] in tomorrow. And at the end of each month, cast an eye down the list by way of self-congratulation and preparation for how to go into the next one.

A diary of my language learning activities for Icelandic in April 2020

The simple act of keep a language learning diary can be one of the most effective for motivating yourself

Diarising your study provides a real sense of progress and satisfaction as you watch your document fill in over the month. Learning just a little every day soon adds up, and your personal report card makes it clearer than ever how much cumulative learning you are doing.

If you have multiple projects on the go – particularly maintenance languages – it helps highlight unintended neglect, too. It becomes starkly clear when you see a gap of several days pile up without touching one of your languages. We all need a bit of a study health check like that now and again.

Like some of the best language techniques, it is both exceedingly simple and brilliantly effective. It has really sorted out my Icelandic out this month after a period of drifting and coasting – my iTalki teacher noticed with the improvement.

With a new month around the corner, why not give it a go?

Language learning report cards are not the only way to journal your way to success – why not consider a target language daily diary too?

A wooded path - image from freeimages.com.

The Habit Trap: Becoming the master of your routine (and not its servant)

It was all going so swimmingly. There I was, walking that trusty path of habit, happy as a lark. You know, that path I always go for a stroll along. Know it like the back of my hand, I do!

Then – WHUMP – I almost fall into a gaping hole where the path should be.

Bewilderment.

Don’t worry – I’m not the character in some reworked Asbjørnsen and Moe tale. That trusty path was favourite productivity app repurposed for language learning, Wunderlist. Now, my affection for the tried-and-tested tool is no secret. It has been, in a word, a brilliant ally in the quest to regularise my language learning.

Those unexpected roadworks, though, were the at the hands of a big, not necessarily bad wolf. Namely Microsoft, who have purchased the company, winding down the app and replacing it with… a usurper. (Dan dan daaaaaah!) Like some wicked stepmother, my Wunderlist-shaped comfort-blanket was ripped from under my feet. Now, Microsoft To Do, like a brash, uninvited guest, had burst loudly into my very neat and tidy room, proclaiming hey! I’m your new buddy!

Friends, I felt resistance. Like an embattled legionnaire, I would stand my ground. Never surrender!

Back to reality

Right: enough with the allegory and mangled metaphors. What I am trying to describe is probably something you have experienced at some point, too. Habit, however, good, can sometimes lead to inflexible thinking. Rather than a safety net, rigidity breeds complacency.

And that leaves you unprepared for the change that life inevitably throws at you at regular intervals.

Habit becomes a trap.

The habit trap

The habit trap gets a hold on the best of us. Humans simply like predictability in their day-to-day. We can all feel friction and resistance when this predictability is threatened, sometimes by the tiniest changes.

Just look at the Duolingo message boards, for example. They are full of unhappy users complaining about the (admittedly quite frequent) functionality-tweaking changes and updates.

But look closer, and you might spot the flip side of the story. Just as many users embrace change and run with it.

Outwitting the trap

One strategy against letting the surprise of change knock you off course is variety. Spread your routine across a range of tools. Avoid relying on a single platform. This is an effective insurance policy against total wipe-out when your tools and techniques of choice change without warning.

Secondly – and this is more obvious, but harder to do – is to foster a mindset open to change. This is what those Duolingo forum users demonstrate, those happy souls brimming with positivity in the face of flux. Now, this is not simply the result of some imaginary split between ‘naturally’ glass-half-empty and glass-half-full people. It is quite possible to train your brain to seize the opportunity change brings.

Unsurprisingly, this is the stuff of a million self-help authors’ dreams. From the classic Who Moved My Cheese to more recent bestsellers like Atomic Habits, finding the pep talk to suit you is no hard task. The consensus is deafening, though: control your habits, rather the vice versa, and you can thrive.

And writing this at a time of lockdown, it strikes me that there is no better opportunity to experiment with your window of comfort to become a master, rather than a servant, of habit.

Needless to say, like all – well, most – fairytales, there is a happy ending. I embraced that party crasher, Microsoft To Do. And you know what? We really hit it off.

Don’t fall into the habit trap. Be its master, not its servant.

Three plush monkeys in the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil poses. Image by freeimages.com

iTalki Isolation Blitz? Here’s how to make the most!

Armed with a bunch of loose ends and a clutch of free evenings, I have been spending quite a bit of time on iTalki over the past few weeks.

In order to avoid bankruptcy, I tend to go for community tutors rather than professional listings. They are usually not only a bit more affordable (so you can book loads without worry of financial ruin), but have an added benefit: they can often be more chatty, informal sessions.

Now, we all need a bit of structure in our learning, especially in the early levels. But when you get beyond the basics, you can dive into those conversational, free-form lessons. You get to set the agenda, talk about what you like, and use the target language in ways that connect to youJust like talking in your native language. Fun!

Only it is never quite like that at first…

The thing is, even after we achieve lift-off from A1, there are always plenty of gaps. And without preempting them, you may complete your lessons feeling you could have made a bit more of them. Stalling, umming and aahing, grasping desperately for words…

Never fear. Arm yourself with these simple techniques for making the most out of informal lessons on iTalki, VerbLing and whatever other platforms you might find target language chat on.

Have fresh material close at hand

I see each iTalki community lesson as an end link in a chain that begins with private study. You spend a week or two working through language resources in your own time. Then, the end of that study cycle is buffered by a face-to-face session to practise and consolidate the new material.

For that reason, it makes sense to have the most salient points of study in front of you to crib from during conversation. Convo crib notes can consist of single vocabulary items or longer phrases to work into the chat. But they should be in note or list form, rather than fully scripted out. The aim is to become adept at dropping lexical nuggets anywhere within dynamic chat, not simply parroting them.

Use Speaking Bingo Sheets

Cribbing leads us neatly on to Speaking Bingo Sheets. I know, I must seem obsessed by these. I like to mention them at every opportunity. But they really help turn vocab-shoehorning into something like a game.

It takes no time to get started with these. Instead of a static reference list, organise some of the most key new items and structures into a grid. Then. tick them off as you use them, aiming for a full house, but awarding points for full lines, too.

Instant entertainment and practice rolled into one!

A speaking bingo sheet for Icelandic displayed in Notability for iPad.

A Speaking Bingo Sheets on the iPad ready for iTalki conversation

Pre iTalki Quiz Blitzing

A theme is emerging here: have that key vocab primed and have it ready to work, work, work for you in conversation. Priming, incidentally, is a well-documented psychological process, and we are really milking it in all of these warm-up techniques.

Another great way to prime to the max is to toss your vocab, paella-style, into one of the many free platforms for creating learning quiz games. These spit out any number of drill practice exercises that you can blitz before your lesson, in order to lodge the items firmly in short-term memory. Then, during their conversational outing, they can begin to settle down in long-term mental storage.

There is no shortage of these platforms at all. I recommend Educandy, but perhaps mainly because I am one of the co-authors of that tool! For the sake of neutrality, I should also mention Cram, Quizlet and StudyBlue as well worth checking out.

Here’s an online quiz I created to drill conversational vocab for an Icelandic lesson way back in 2018.

Educandy's green mascot

Educandy‘s friendly blob is here to help

Do some Focused listening

So far, each method has sought to recycle and prime your own materials. But passive reception is just an important in conversation, and using authentic material like talk radio or podcasts can significantly boost your lesson performance.

A bit of focused listening can tune the brain in to the sound and shape of the target language ahead of your lesson. Note that the key word here is focused. Simply having the radio or Spotify on in the background will probably not cut the mustard.

Instead, aim to sit down with a pad for ten minutes, listening out for key words and noting them down. These kinds of active listening stints are a great way to prepare your auditory circuits for comprehension.

Read aloud in the target language

So listening is great for understanding others’ voices. But what about your own?

When it comes to activating your language circuits, reading aloud packs a double whammy. Like stretching before exercise, it gives your speaking apparatus a nice warm-up. But as with listening activities, reading out loud also feeds plenty of comprehensible input to the brain right before you have to produce the language actively. That should trigger all sorts of mental pathways to vocabulary, structure and intonation, ready to fire off to your teacher.

It is arguably even easier to find material for this, too. Just choose a news article, blog post or book in the target language, and read away. Read carefully, mindfully, taking in the meaning and not just producing the sounds. Try reading with a different voice, with a different intonation, varying your pitch and your volume. Play with the sounds. There is no shame in being silly with it, either. Let go of all of your inhibitions! This can be a brilliant way to defuse pre-conversation nerves, too.

Although any new website will do really, I particularly like Olly Richard’s Short Stories series for this. Each chapter is short enough to go over completely ten or so minutes before a lesson.

Above all, enjoy!

Lastly, remember why you do this. If it starts to feel stressful, give yourself a break. Nobody expects perfection.

Take some extra time to prepare. Chat to your teacher beforehand about your misgivings and agree a framework to take the fear out of completely free speaking. Share some of these techniques with your teacher – especially the Bingo Sheets – so they can also partake in the fun!

Above all, enjoy.

I hope these tips and tricks help your lessons go swimmingly. How else do you like to prepare for practice conversations? Let us know in the comments!

A picture of a little yellow flower. Image from freeimages.com

It’s the Little Things : Serendipity and Lockdown Learning

It’s the little things that keep us going in challenging times. And no exception this week, which brought a tranche of serendipitous rediscoveries that kept the housebound language learning ticking over, preserving at least a modicum of precious lockdown sanity.

Many of us now have a heap of extra time on our hands at home right now. So clearly, many of these archaeological finds proceed from the fact that a lot of surprise spring-cleaning is going on. And from old, forgotten but effective study tools, to long-misplaced books, the little things keep coming.

It was the spirit of serendipity that gave me the biggest language-learning smile-moment of the week: my old Bose SoundTouch 20 WiFi speakers, resurrected to new life.

A picture of my Bose SoundTouch 20 Wifi speaker, playing the Norwegian radio station NRK P2.

Long shelved media equipment comes into its own. My old Bose SoundTouch 20 now serves as a precious connection to target language countries.

I’d shelved this heavy-duty media beauty some years ago, as it lacked BlueTooth. Instead, it works across WiFi only, interfacing with devices on the same broadband connection. Smaller,  more portable Bluetooth speakers just seemed less cumbersome and easier to connect to now and again.

But what has this to do with language learning?

technically magic little things

Well, the SoundTouch has a special magic trick: six chunky preset buttons sitting on the top of its hefty frame. Once paired with your device, you can tune these to Spotify playlists or world radio stations of your choice. And, after that, you don’t even need your device to be connected to play them. Just tap a preset button and it bursts into life.

I put these to great use all those years ago, when the machine was shiny and new. I tuned three of the presets to foreign language music playlists on my Spotify account. The other three, I pointed at various radio station live feeds from countries of study. Then, whenever the mood took me, I could immerse myself in the target language at the touch of a button, no fuss at all.

How could I have forgotten about this wonderful piece of equipment?

Needless to say, it is sitting proudly in the living room again. This time round, it is primed with two foreign music playlists, and four radio stations: NRK P2 (Norwegian), RÚV Rás 1 (Icelandic), NDR Info (German) and Polskie Radio 24 (Polish). Instant immersion at a tap. And as always, the quicker and easier a language learning habit is to implement, the more I do it. It doesn’t get much quicker and easier than button-pushing.

What’s more, it has become a valuable portal to a global village while travel is shut down. If you are struggling with your big world suddenly feeling very small and restricted, you can take advantage of this remedy without fancy equipment. Even placing the link to a free radio app on the first screen of your phone will make the world feel a little closer.

Tidy little things

Bringing objects of love and fascination closer is a recurring theme. Not only forgotten overseas sounds, but long-missed books resurfaced during these long, quiet evenings.

The aim of the exercise was to move the books from my most active language learning / maintenance projects to sit right next to my desk for easier access. This was no mean feat; thanks to a rather hectic peripatetic lifestyle pre-shutdown, there was quite a bit of disorder to tackle.

The resulting bookshelf rummage was a revelation. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are, how much we have. From the depths of obscurity, I plucked a wealth of beautiful books that had almost entirely slipped my mind. Not defunct old tomes, but materials worth going over again (or for the first time, in some cases – the shame of it).

Treasured books are indeed some of the very best little things.

A picture of some of my language books, organised neatly on shelves.

Is there anything more satisfying than reorganising your home library?

Talking of serendipity, as I sit here writing this listening to NRK P2, my favourite Norwegian language programme, Språkteigen, pops on unexpectedly. I always listen to this as a podcast, never on broadcast radio. It feels somehow more special now. All the little things in their rightful place again; the language gods are happy.

What have you rediscovered in lockdown from your language learning past? Let us know in the comments!

Jars of jam. Image by freeimages.com.

Language Jam on Ukrainian Toast

What did you have for breakfast this morning? For me, it was a large dollop of Ukrainian jam on toast. I know, that makes two weeks in a row that I’ve written about food. But this time, it was purely food for the brain and polyglot soul, as it was my very first #LangJam.

My Language Jam language reveal, showing Ukrainian as the randomly selected language.

My Language Jam mission: Ukrainian

My mission: 35-million-speakers-strong Ukrainian. It was quite an inspired random choice on Language Jam’s part. I spent some years studying Russian a while back, and Polish is a major active project for me now. So it seemed very apt to check out this fascinating bridge between hotspots on my language map!

Duolingo = lazy language jam?

First off, I must admit that I maybe failed to match the verve of some friends and colleagues. I remain utterly impressed at the reams and reams of notes some fellow jammers have been making. Just look at this.

Instead, I focused on Duolingo as my main resource, with Wikipedia and Wiktionary filling in the background gaps.

I chose to use Duolingo not just because it was the easy, lazy choice. (It does just happen that it is, though.) I made the choice chiefly because I love the way courses usually introduce you to basic nouns and simple verb phrases at first. Instead of the usual hackneyed ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ and ‘goodbye’ phrases, you get a better picture of how the language works straight off. By the end of it, you end up with a mini dictionary in the mind – a great foundation to continue more serious study if the mood takes you.

Also, if you wind up doing several Duolingo courses, you can start to spot patterns between languages, since the first words taught are largely the same (people and food nouns and such like). It paints a nice picture of how cognates differ between them, and how sounds with the same proto-roots came to be articulated differently and so on.

It builds a kind of etymological overview of languages, and etymology is a big way into languages for me.

Duolingo Ukrainian – how does it measure up?

Whenever I start a new Duolingo course, it’s a fascinating opportunity to compare how the different language options measure up against each other. Ukrainian turned out to have some nice surprises.

Although I know the Cyrillic alphabet very well from Russian studies, I loved the facility to type transliterated, Roman alphabet answers in the absence of a Ukrainian keyboard layout. Cheating? Perhaps a little. But if you are just dipping a toe in, it allows to you start running in the language very quickly.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo. Maybe cheating a little, but so convenient if you are just after a taster!

The recordings could perhaps do with a little TLC in the Ukrainian section. That said, the voices are bright, clear and cheery. What more could you ask for, really?

And the trusty Duolingo approach of basic, stock words and simple sentences was in full force. Within the first couple of lessons you get a sense of basic sentence structure and some initial grammatical concepts like plural formation. In fact, the course reminds me a little of the excellent Polish course which I golded up last year. Thumbs up!

Making connections

As for the Ukrainian language itself, it was as expected. It turns out to be a goldmine of intrigue for someone with experience of both Polish and Russian. Admittedly, I was left with lots of questions. Where, for example, did the /v/ sound creep in from in the words for ‘he’ and ‘she’, він and вона? Polish has the v-less on/ona and Russian он/она (on/ona).

And the surprises kept coming. What happened to make the vowel in Ukrainian хліб, сіль, їсти (chlib, sil’, isty – bread, salt, eat) so different to Polish (chleb, sól, jeść) and Russian (хлеб, соль, есть – chleb, sol’, yest’)? Similarly, ‘city’ is місто – compare Polish miasto, and ‘horse’ is кінь (Polish koń). The word for ‘cat’ is кіт versus Polish kot. That ‘і’ pops up everywhere, and gives the sound of Ukrainian a very distinct, endearing flavour to an ear attuned to the other two.

Add to this special mix a tendency to have softer-sounding, fricatives in initial position where Polish has hard ones, and you start to collate a list of tell-tale signs to listen out for when discerning Ukrainian from its neighbouring Slavic languages. For example, compare Ukrainian це, хто (tse, chto) to Polish to, kto (it, who). Sometimes, building this skill of telling what a language is from its sound shape, even if you don’t speak it, is almost as socially useful as knowing one or two basic phrases.

For me, Language Jam has been a treat just for these comparative adventures. It widens the mental map of how words vary across space. Sometimes, as with Spanish and Portuguese, you can learn certain sound relations and ‘convert’ your knowledge of one into the other. At first study, it seems that Polish and Ukrainian are not quite close enough to do that, thanks to a greater number of vocabulary differences. For ‘animal’, say, Polish uses zwierzę, but Ukrainian тварина (tvaryna), etymologically completely different. But the ‘conversion rules’ at work here are certainly enough to act as a hook when learning one from the other.

Spare parts

When you view a group of related languages together like this, it can almost be like seeing machines that have been put together from a big bucket of parts. Each machine produces the same results in similar ways, but not always using exactly the same pieces.

For example, two Proto-Slavic roots for ‘to see’ have been reconstructed: *vìděti and *obačiti. You could consider these two different spare parts for the notion of ‘seeing’ when we build our Slavic language machines. Polish uses both of them in different aspectual parts, with widzieć (imperfective) and zobaczyć (perfective). Ukrainian uses a cognate of the latter for both perfective and imperfective (бачити / побачити – bachyty / pobachyty). Russian, on the other hand, uses the former for both (видеть / увидеть – vidyet’ / uvidyet’).

Ukrainian, geographically placed as it is, variously uses pieces with a sometimes more ‘Polish’ and sometimes more ‘Russian’ twist. ‘To work’, for example, is працювати (pratsuvati), akin to Polish pracować. On the other hand, Russian goes with работать (rabotat’).

And the ‘spare parts’ idea works within words at the syllable level too, and not just with whole roots. As a case in point, I just love the variations on the word ‘bear’ across the three languages. It seems like each one concocted a different flavour from the same syllable soup. We have Polish niedźwiedź, Ukrainian ведмідь (vedmid’) and Russian медведь (myedvyed’). Possibly the sweetest triplet of cognates ever. They sound like characters from a folk tale!

The stuff I excitedly share here, as if it were some kind of novel discovery, is undoubtedly elementary par for the course for students of Slavic Linguistics 101. But that has been the beauty of using Language Jam as a comparative introduction – exploring and deducing these things in isolation, all by myself. And spotting those relationships and connections is uniquely rewarding as a language lover.

Goal achieved? You’re jam right

These are just a few observations after my very brief exposure to the beautiful and fascinating Ukrainian language over the weekend. The experience has given me a little of that comparative scaffolding for Slavic that has already helped me get a grip on the Germanic languages. And in particular, it has broadened my experience of how phonologies diverge over time and place. For those reasons alone, it has been a truly enriching exercise, and another wave of the flag in support of endless dabbling.

Of course, with just a weekend to jam, the aim was never really to gain any degree of functional fluency. Instead, I was hoping to learn a little about the language, along with a handy couple of words to impress Ukrainians with should I ever bump into some. On that score, it is goal achieved. That said, the little I have learnt would serve as a fantastic springboard if I come to study the language again in the future.

I hope these wide-eyed dabbler notes have given other Ukrainian newbies a taste of the language, aroused the curiosity of speakers and learners of other Slavic languages, and prompted others to check out the fantastic Language Jam.

As far as conserves go, it was pretty sweet.