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

Building Blocks for Faster Fluency

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

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

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

Ready-Made Building Blocks

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

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

Custom Blocks

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

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

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

Banana Split

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

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

Owls chatting. Photo by Ross Dismore, freeimages.com

Battle of the Owls: Duolingo vs. Glossika

You have to hand it to the owls.

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

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

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

Pricing

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

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

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

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

Mass Sentences

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

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

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

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

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

Order, Order!

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

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

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

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

🦉 I declare this a win for the green owl.

Error Catching

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

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

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

Helping hands

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

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

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

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

Voices

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

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

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

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

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

Community

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

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

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

🦉 Hands down, Duolingo won this match.

Joining Forces

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

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

Two owls are always better than one.

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

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

Northern Rift Valley, Tanzania. Swahili is one of Tanzania's national languages. Picture by Barbara Schneider of freeimages.com

Swahili Safari: First Steps on a Brand New Language Journey

I’ve been saying for a while that it’s high time I diversified my language outlook. And as of on cue, the chance fell into my lap this month. My MSc Linguistics programme includes a 20-credit introductory Swahili module. Asante!

Swahili makes a lot of sense to me as a credit option. For a start, Bantu languages seem to pop up with regular frequency as examples in the phonology literature. They seem interesting to linguists because they are different, and relatively less well-covered than the ‘mainstream’ bunch of tongues studied in schools, colleges and universities. They offer a chance to observe phonological processes at work in a fresh (to us) environment, without the bias of the all-too familiar.

But there’s also the reason why those language are unfamiliar in the first place: the relative invisibility of African languages in Western educational settings. My instincts draw me to Indo-European studies because they are familiar, comfortable, safe. The reason? The choice to study an African language was never part of the traditional offering. At secondary school, it was either French or German; even Spanish was a stretch. And just try finding resources on Swahili, Yoruba or Xhosa at a bookshop in 1993! As a result, I spent my formative language learning years blind to a huge swathe of the world’s languages.

Here was an opportunity to do something about that.

Defamiliarising the Familiar

Admittedly, the cultural barrier has never been entirely watertight. Western bias aside, some elements of Swahili have managed to slip into the international repertoire. In fact, many English speakers will have come across a little of the language already without realising it.

The word safari, for example, found its way into English via Swahili (although there, its meaning is journey, and it was an Arabic loan before that). What’s more, Disney’s The Lion King popularised phrases like hakuna matata (no worries) and even words like simba (lion) through character names. Through popular culture, you may have come across the greeting jambo, too.

But jambo nicely illustrates how imperfect that cultural cross-pollination can be. It turns out that jambo is not found on its own colloquially. Instead, it is just a simplification to teach the tourists. Meaning literally matter or affair, it is usually incorporated into phrases like hujambo (roughly ‘don’t you have anything?‘) and the reply sijambo (‘I don’t have anything‘) in everyday use.

But to my ear, that simplification says a lot; it says that even native speakers assume that visitors won’t want to spend time and effort on the language. It’s an assumption of disinterest, one backed up by reality. This tourist is that half-interested outsider, rooted in the comfortable elsewhere, here for the show but unwilling to engage too closely.

Lesson one: try not to sound like a tourist.

Thinking Differently

Meeting the intricacy of the language head-on is an excellent way to do that. And as you delve deeper, one of the most rewarding aspects of stepping away from the familiar is the discovery of other ways that human beings do language.

In many Indo-European languages, for example, we are used to noun classification by gender: masculine, feminine and (sometimes) neuter. Swahili has classes and corresponding agreement too – just not along gender lines. Instead, there are nine noun groups (eighteen if you count singular-plural separately) that are roughly organised by meaning, and have characteristic prefixes. They come in singular-plural pairs, such as the first one, m-/wa-, which tends to group together ‘people’ nouns. For instance, we have:

mtu person watu people
mtoto child watoto children
mkenya Kenyan person wakenya Kenyan people

Then there is the m-/mi- class, which groups inanimate objects (but also plants, groups of people and animals, as well as body parts):

mti tree miti trees
mguu leg/foot miguu legs/feet

With their rough division based on objective traits, they remind me a little of Chinese quantifying words, which sort objects along similar lines (long things, things that come in pairs, collectible things and so on).

But more than anything, the prefix system turns what we might think from a purely Indo-European bubble on its head: nouns being marked for meaning by changing at the beginning, rather than the end.

Learn Your Verb… Beginnings?

It turns out that Swahili likes this front-loading pattern. We see it in verbs, too, which speakers conjugate through tightly ordered prefixes on word-final stems. Take the verb ‘see‘ in English, for example, which has the stem -ona in Swahili. Here are a few finite forms from that stem:

niliona ni li ona
I saw I past tense marker verb stem
ninaona ni na ona
I see I present tense marker verb stem
nitaona ni ta ona
I will see I future tense marker verb stem

There is even a further slot (just after the tense marker) that can agree with the verb’s object. Being so used to endings, learning to think the other way round is quite refreshing.

And geekily, linguistically thrilling!

Swahili Safari

So there it is: the beginning of my Swahili safari. Just a week of the language has begun to fill in the gaps in a knowledge I only now realise was so incomplete, so localised. Already, it is lending a bit of colour to my first steps in formal phonology and morphology. And maybe, these first observations of an excited (and easily excitable) budding linguist are enough to tempt you to step into the unfamiliar, too.

Or even tempt others – in these days of flipped classrooms and independent learning, perhaps we can focus on teaching kids generalised language learning skills, then give them that truly open choice we missed out on ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be Swahili, of course. It is enough to have the choice of all available paths on our journey.

Just enjoy the safari!

Intonation adds a thousand different colours to speech. Coloured glass. Image by Simon Jackson on FreeImages.com

Intonation Training: From Yam-Yam to Yia Sou

When you meet me, one of the first things you notice is probably my accent. Despite being embedded in Scottish life for over a decade, there’s still an unmistakeable Midlands lilt that persists. The vowels have flattened out to something a little more neutral over the years, it’s true. But it’s in my intonation that you can still hear the imprint of my roots.

Midlands accents get a bad rap. Full-on Brummie, for instance, still battles to be taken seriously after years of parodies and comedy sketches. And the baggage that people attach to your variety of speech can weigh you down. That pressure is one reason many of us subconsciously begin to change our distinctive sounds when we move away from our home regions.

One thing has proven extremely resistant, though – that characteristic rise and fall, up-and-down, sing-song intonation of my West Midlands English. In the Black Country, where I grew up, that particularly strong swinging tone has given us some national fame as yam-yams (most probably from the local form “ya’m” for “you are“). The almost musical nature of it is something it has in common with certain varieties of Welsh English.

But as endearing as it can be to us locals, it can play havoc with your foreign language learning.

Intonation and Learning Foreign Languages

The reason is the same phonological interplay that anchors our foreign language speech to our native phonology. Just as much as our vowel shapes and consonant articulation, intonation is highly ingrained in our oral muscle memory.

The unwelcome interference stuck out like a sore thumb in my recent learning on the mass sentence training platform Glossika, which I’ve been using to improve my fluency in a couple of language projects. The great thing about this platform is the chance to compare your own pronunciation with native speakers’ renditions. But be prepared: it can be very revealing. I realised that my intonation in Greek – especially in questions – was completely off.

What was going on?

Well, it all comes down to my deeply rooted Midlands twang. The tendency I carry over from my own native accent is to go up at the end of a sentence. That’s not just in questions, either. If you listen to Midlands English, you might well notice that our intonation rises at the end of nearly every sentence!

Not so with Greek. Often, the intonation will fall after rising towards the end of a yes-no question. It’s a bit more complex than that, of course, and there is much more detail in studies like this one if you need the nitty gritty. But generally, it is quite a bit different from English (especially mine).

Training It Out

The solution, of course, is more of the tool that shed light on the problem. Plenty of reps later on Glossika, and my question intonation is starting to improve considerably.

Repetition is the key, here. And if you don’t have access to Glossika, it’s not difficult to make your own DIY solution using the mass sentence technique. First of all, you need to source neatly chunked, model sentences in audio format. This can be surprisingly easy to come across. Many phrase books, for example, come with an accompanying CD or MP3 download links. Often, this material is available for download without even buying the book. Audio support for German publisher PONS’ mini courses, like this Croatian introductory text, is one such freely available resource. Multilingual sentence repository Tatoeba also includes many native recordings for its entries.

Once located, you can organise the material as a playlist in the player app of your choice. Having them loop round on a reel isn’t far off doing audio-only reps with a rep tool like Glossika. While it won’t quite follow the very effective, high-frequency high-representation corpus method of that site, it isn’t a bad substitute to give the technique a try in working on your intonation. There’s a plus side to phrase books, too; they tend to include lots of questions, which is ideal if you also struggle with that particular aspect.

Bit by bit, my up-and-downy Midlands intonation is disappearing from my Greek. It’s a lot less yam-yam, and a lot more yia sou. As for my English? I’m older and wiser enough now to stand up for my accent. I’ll carry that intonation with pride – as long as it leaves my other languages alone!

A page from a German dictionary with the translation of various words. Image from freeimages.com.

Avoiding the Translation Crutch in Language Learning

I was on a mission this week: to minimise the interference of English translation in my language learning.

You are probably familiar with the scenario – that slow, faltering, stoppy-starty feel to conversation in a language you are learning. In those early stages, what we want to say often pops up in our native language first; then, we try to translate it into the target language on the fly. The inefficiency of it all is so frustrating.

Independence from translation is one of the super-skills of fluent foreign language use. But reaching that point, where Mentalese, the non-verbal code of thinking, bypasses your first tongue and goes straight to the target one, can seem a far-off ideal.

Translation is Everywhere

The problem is, we are constantly nudged to think of languages in terms of equivalencies. Just look at the most popular e-learning tools. Duolingo, Memrise, Glossika and many, many others default to translation exercises for drilling vocabulary. Even the setup of our beloved Anki assumes a one-to-one relationship between the new words you learn and some native matching pair.

Translation has its place, of course, and not only because of its very long pedigree as the classical language learning method of choice. If you have ever leafed through some old Teach Yourself volumes, for example, it was once the only way anybody ever considered learning or teaching a language.

And it has its success stories. Some very successful polyglots have achieved stunning results with translation. Take Luca Lampariello’s bidirectional translation technique, for instance. Similarly, the Assimil courses, based on side-by-side bilingual dialogues, continue to be incredibly popular.

It remains a rational starting point for the absolute beginner. For one thing, we need something to hook new words and phrases onto when we learn them. As such, even those old translation-based courses have their uses. I learnt masses of vocabulary and grammar from an ancient copy of Teach Yourself Polish. The only snag is, I still manipulate them quite clumsily and unnaturally in conversation, thanks to that translation bias.

Is there a better way to run, once we have learnt to walk?

Minimising abstractions

One route to weakening the native-hook reliance is to mimic how children acquire language: to tie new language directly to mental representations of the real world. If we see words as abstract symbols representing real-world concepts, then the translation method simply adds a second level of abstraction. No wonder it slows us down in higher-level speaking.

Some apps adopt an approach that minimises this reliance upon the native language. For instance, when Drops presents a new term, the translation is flashed up briefly with the pictogram to avoid misinterpretation. But beyond that point, its activities rely only upon the image, not the English translation.

Can we integrate that kind of non-verbal representation into our independent learning?

Helping hands

Well, one way I have explored recently is through physical signing – a kind of personal sign language. It is a good fit, to be honest. I can be a bit of a ‘hand talker’ in any case, as a visual thinker. My hands have a communicative mind of their own, and like to form shapes of their own accord along with the sounds that come out of my mouth.

Why not, in that case, enlist that trait in the battle to ‘de-English’ my foreign languages?

I start by forming the shape of the idea or concept with my hands as I say the target word out loud. Some signs are easier than others, but since they are purely personal cues, they can be as obtuse as you like. ‘Get’, for example, is a movement of the hands towards the body. For ‘rest’, I smooth out a flat surface before my body, as if preparing a bed to lie on, or painting a calm sea. The hope is that future retrieval of the word comes from a non-verbal representation, rather than an English translation.

Of course, you could also make this signing official. Fully-fledged sign languages have highly complex systems for expressing concepts like tense. For a kinaesthetic learner, these could offer very flexible support techniques to couple all sorts of grammatical features in a spoken language with a non-verbal memory cue.

Better meta

The native language trap is set when we talk about features of the target language, too. This might be with teachers and peers, but also when using text books and grammars written for a non-native audience.

Fortunately, squashing this bug is an easy win. You can go meta with your language skills by equipping yourself with the necessary speaking tools. By learning terms like ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ in the target language, you can work on grammar acquisition in a monolingual environment rather than resources meant for foreign learners.

Similarly, you might consider supporting the growing wave of social media content creators turning away from English and using the target language for discussion of polyglot themes. It can be a tough call, balancing a desire for linguistic diversity with inclusivity. But more and more members of the community are switching on to the idea.

Triangulation

All that said, some resources are just too good to write off just because they use a drill-by-translation approach. But all is not lost: you can change the base, or native language, in many of them. Simply make a different language your ‘native’ one!

Admittedly, this only works well when you have at least one strong foreign language already. You switch the base language of the app or resource to one of these, triangulating your learning with by linking two foreign languages. The bonus pay-off: it helps to maintain your stronger language, too.

A well-used triangulation tactic is to work through a Duolingo course designed for speakers of another language, such as German for Spanish speakers. In Glossika, too, you can change the base language to completely upend the environment, and avoid native translation as your method. Alternatively, if you are following your own DIY mass sentences programme, repositories like Tatoeba offer the same feature.

Translation Options in Glossika - a screen showing Polish and Norwegian (Nynorsk).

You can’t get away from translation in Glossika. But you CAN escape your native language. Here is a Norwegian (Nynorsk) sentence for learning, with Polish support.

The same works the old-fashioned way too, of course. It is easy enough to get hold of learning materials for a different native language audience, just like those alternative Duolingo courses. Assimil editions, for example, are available chiefly in French and German, like the Greek course for German speakers below.

A picture of the book "Griechiesch ohne Mühe" (Greek with Ease) by Assimil.

“Griechiesch ohne Mühe” (Greek with Ease) by Assimil – my latest acquisition for avoiding English translation!

Personally, I love building up a library of double-foreign language teaching materials – there is something really fun about constructing a web of all your language projects without everything revolving around English at the centre.

Gaining Your Wings: Comprehensible Input

At some point, of course, translation becomes a moot point. The stabilisers come off, and your level is enough to operate with authentic materials produced for a home audience.

When you reach lift-off velocity – say, A2 or B1 – you can do away with the translation crutch altogether. This is the point where you can start to ‘mass sentence’ up your skills the native way, through exposure to real-world media, and the copious reading and listening that comes with that.

Getting to this point whilst minimising translation is the real feat, though. If you can manage that, you will be well on the way to thinking directly in the target language.

Good luck gaining your own wings!

Shooting Stars : Logging can help you reach for the skies with your language learning! Image from freeimages.com

Task Logging: Realise You’re Smashing It

If only we’d all be a little kinder to ourselves.

I read it all the time on social media: fellow language learners beating themselves up for not studying harder, longer, more often. It seems like everybody feels they’re not doing enough.

In fact, Covid lockdown has made things worse for many. Faced with all that extra time at home, how have we not turned into super-productive learning machines, devouring languages by the barrowload?

But far from egging us on, this type of chat is goal-wrecking. Feeling that we aren’t doing enough can be hugely demotivating. All that self-flagellation can have the opposite effect.

You simply give up.

Owning up

I raise my hand at this point. I am as guilty of self-criticism as the next learner.

I’m not doing enough. I’m not spending enough time on language X, Y, Z. I’m a bad student! I must try harder.

The thing is, it is difficult to fit learning into the busy lives we lead. No question. Few of us have the resources or options to be full-time, always-on students, and learning sometimes boils down to a bit here, a bit there.

But this was my biggest mistake: I thought a bit here, a bit there amounted to nothing.

So, to try and prove myself wrong, I started logging what I was actually doing. And the result was a bit of a surprise.

Looks like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, at the time, none of this felt like a lot. These bits and pieces were often just ten minutes or so, snatched around busy working days. Several of them were fairly passive activities, like listening to a podcast, or watching a short programme and making brief notes.

But just look how they add up.

The fact is that often, we simply don’t realise the cumulative effect of what we do. But the little and often approach pays dividends if you have a hectic rest-of-life in the background.

Logging logistics – the simpler, the better

So, how best to approach this?

As a productivity nerd, I’ve experimented with methods until the cows came home. Truth be told, there are as many ways to journal and log as there are learners. It’s worth trying out a few approaches to find what works for you.

Recently, I hit upon a winning formula that was immediately effective, but gradually morphed into something more streamlined. I started a logging cycle by creating monthly language report cards for each project. It worked really well straight off the bat. But since then, the multiple documents have slowly melded into a single list in recent weeks, and now it works even better. It’s highlighted one of the few hard and fast rules of learner logging (there aren’t many):

The simpler the logging method, the better: it is much easier to keep it up.

At first, I also tended to separate the more ‘meaty’ learning activities from repeated daily language habits, such as app work with Anki, Drops and Duolingo. Instead, I track these as regular tactics following the 12-week year system of goal setting. They have become so ingrained that I don’t even count them.

But there I go again, diminishing my efforts to nothing. Not counting these daily tasks as real work was another reason for getting a false impression of my efforts. The antidote – I moved my daily tick boxes to the same place as my log. So another rule learned:

Keep all of your logging, large and small, in one place: don’t overlook any of your efforts.

The magic of logging

When you get logging down to a tee, something magical begins to happen.

The act of filling your list up becomes a motivator in itself.

You start to take pride in that busy list of flag-lined milestones by the end of the week, and develop a mindfulness for even the smallest learning activities you might otherwise have written off as nothing.

The heart of that magic spark is the imperceptible accumulation of riches – in this case, educational ones. Just like regular savings pile up in a bank account, so do your little and often moments. The least you can do for yourself is make these many, miniature wins visible.

Logging needn’t even be in list format. I have a pad on my desk that I use to scribble down my language notes. During lockdown, I paid no attention to the number of pages I was filling up. But, one day, I suddenly realised that I have written reams and reams. It never seemed like a lot – but little, and often, it really was.

Smashing it – and not even realising it.

The language jotter that sits on my desk.

The language jotter that sits on my desk. Before I knew it, it was full.

I wrote this post as a personal pep talk – I needed to celebrate my efforts, and stop belittling them. But I hope it suggests a way for you to get that same satisfaction if you feel the drag  and don’t feel what you do is enough.

Look a little closer – you’re smashing it and you don’t even realise.

Use logging and journaling to remind yourself that you’re doing a good job, and give yourself a pat on the back more often.

Eurovision Cyprus 1993 - the song Μη σταματάς

Language Lessons from a Song [Eurovision 1993 : Cyprus]

Bravo, inventor of the three-minute, throwaway pop song. Not only does it provide a little well-needed escapist entertainment, but it also doubles as a fantastic little language learning tool.

I’m far from the first language learning aficionado to use music to learn, of course. Many learners arrive at a new language after first falling in love with its music. And countless language teachers regularly spice up their classroom lessons with a pinch of pop.

But why is the simple song such a great medium for vocab mining? Besides the sheer fun of it. Well, for one thing, your typical chart hit is a nice and concise text to work with. It is the embodiment of bite-sized.

Secondly, the language of popular music tends to be quite colloquial, and not too elevated. You can pick up some nice, common turns of phrase to use in conversation. That doesn’t stop it expressing some universal and familiar truths, though, as well as some lyrics that can provide lively talking points.

What’s more – and here is the clincher – pop music is just so incredibly accessible now. Where overseas music was once hard to get hold of, it is now just a YouTube or Spotify search away.

A Song for Europe

As far as prime examples go, nothing quite approaches the three-minute pop perfection of the Eurovision Song Contest entry. I have long had a deep-seated fondness for Eurovision songs as my learning tools of choice.

No surprise there, of course. Eurovision is the reason I know so many random bits and bobs of so many different languages (not to mention ‘love’ and ‘peace’ in all of them). The lyrics range between harmless cheese and works of poetic art (check out this rather dark classic from France in 1968). But they all make for brilliant vocab fodder.

Also, an added benefit of choosing a Eurovision song is the excellent lyrics database Diggiloo Thrush, complete with translations and transliterations to tailor the material to any learner’s level.

But don’t let me badger you into choosing Eurovision (as if I needed any encouragement). Any song will do! After selecting one, Google for the lyrics, and begin to work through, line by line. As you move through the music, record each new term in your preferred practice / drill tool. Anki is always forever my go-to.

Adding colour to your conversation

Whatever your source, the nature of the song can provide some very colourful additions to your conversational repertoire. It is a fun game to toss out freshly memorised song lyrics to tutors mid-flow, and see how naturally (and imperceptibly!) they fit into the conversation – or not.

This can occasionally lend quite the philosophical slant to your chat. “Some of us, my friend, are the beggars of happiness” I mused to one perplexed tutor in the middle of a practice dialogue on buying train tickets. Yes, lyrics-fuelled lessons are nothing if not memorable (and salience of our active language learning material is something we should all strive for).

All Greek to Me

I currently find myself levelling up my Greek, first learned twenty years ago through Eurovision songs and island hopping. Music (much like food) simply has to play a part in any Greek learning plan, naturally. By way of example (and to spread the love), here is my working for a particularly favourite Eurovision song of mine, Cyprus’ underrated 1993 effort “Μη σταματάς” (Don’t Stop).

By going through the text systematically, you see how much high-frequency vocab you can mine from working with even the simplest of songs. And of course, you get the added memory bonus of having the words and phrases lodge in your head with a particularly sticky ear worm.

So without further ado… Ladies and gentlemen! I present to you the conductor, George Theofanous. Let the music (and learning) begin!

Μη σταματάς

Verse 1

Στη ζωή μας όλοι ερχόμαστε γυμνοί In our life we all arrive naked η ζωή – life
έρχομαι (έρθω, ήρθα) – to come
γυμνός – naked, bare
Ίδιο τέλος μας ορίζει και αρχή The same end and beginning define us ίδιος – same; own
το τέλος – end
η αρχή – beginning
ορίζω – to define, designate
Μα είναι κάποιοι από μας, οι ζητιάνοι της χαράς But there are some of us, the beggars of joy κάποιος – someone
ο ζητιάνος – beggar
η χαρά – joy, happiness

Chorus

Μη σταματάς, στους ανθρώπους να δίνεις βοήθεια Don’t stop giving help to people σταματώ – to stop
δίνω (δώσω, έδωσα) – to give
ο άνθρωπος – human, person
η βοήθεια – help (cf. the verb βοηθάω, to help)
Μην προσπερνάς, μη φοβάσαι να δεις τα συντρίμμια Don’t walk on by, don’t fear seeing the debris προσπερνώ – to pass by
φοβάμαι – to fear, be afraid (cf. the word phobia)
τα συντρίμμια – the debris, rubbish, wreckage
Κι αν τη ζωή την πληγώνει συχνά η αλήθεια And if truth often hurts life πληγώνω – to hurt, wound
συχνά – often, frequentlyη αλήθεια – truth
Μη σταματάς, μη σταματάς Don’t stop, don’t stop  

Verse 2

Όσα έχεις τόσα έχω, αδερφέ Whatever you own, I own, brother όσα… τόσα… – what …, that’s what … (cf. ‘όσα δίνεις, τόσα παίρνεις‘, ‘you get what you pay for‘)
Μα είναι κι άλλοι που δεν γέλασαν ποτέ But there are others who never laughed άλλος – other
γελάω – to laugh
Ειν’ το βλέμμα τους θολό, και σηκώνουνε σταυρό Their sight is unclear, and they carry a cross το βλέμμα – look, glance, stare (cf. βλέπω, to see)
θολός – dim, cloudy, blurry
σηκώνω – to lift up (cf., σηκώνομαι, to get up)
ο σταυρός – cross

I said it was bite-sized – three minutes of music doesn’t take long to work through. And there is some great, high frequency vocab to take away from that.

Deconstructing a favourite song

As you can see, deconstructing a favourite song in a foreign language does sometimes take the mystery away from it all a bit. Didn’t it all seem a bit more serious and credible before I translated it into complete banality? Now, it all sounds a little bit over-the-top. Walking past the debris? Everybody arriving naked? Hmm.

That said, I will always love this song, and not only for the extra vocab it’s given me. I adore how the lads are taking it all so seriously. I celebrate the oomph the backing trio are giving it. And I applaud the cheesy sax solo.

Even if the juries didn’t quite agree.

Rodin's statue The Thinker. Perhaps he is thinking about Language Learning? Image from freeimages.com.

Language Learning Faultlines : When Words Diverge

I had a language learning breakthrough this week. I finally got a handle on the two verbs for ‘to think’ in Greek: νομίζω (nomízo) and σκέφτομαι (skéftomai). Unlike the all-purpose English term, Greek is more discerning. It uses the former for general, more superficial matters of thinking and and opining. The latter, however, refers to the more serious business of deep cognitive processes.

The matter of different kinds of thinking is a distinction I should be used to, mind. Students of Norwegian must also get used to English ‘think’ spreading out across multiple translations. There is tenke – the actual process of thought. But then you have synes, to have an opinion about something. And tro, to believe, pops up where we might be tempted to use that catch-all think in English, too. That’s a hefty three-way split!

Well, all this thinking, it got me thinking. There are a fair few cases where English collapses meanings into a single lexical item, while other languages distrubute the nuances across different terms. Could English be a bit… woolly?

Woolly Friends

Woolliness of English certainly does rear its head from time to time. Just look at the word friend, which is a tricky one for English speakers learning Polish. It is tempting to head to the dictionary and lift przyjaciel as a direct word-for-word translation. But przyjaciel is a lot stronger than the pretty wide-ranging catchment of friend. Rather, znajomy or kolega are more appropriate choices in Polish, however cool and detached the literal translations acquaintance and colleague might sound to anglophones!

That said, it is impossible to make judgements when comparing these imperfectly aligned terms. The differences just are. Language learning discoveries like this do allow us to look at our own language critically, though. Do we overuse friend in English? Perhaps. But sometimes that ambiguity is quite useful – especially when hedging our friendship bets. And what of Icelandic’s multiple words for animal tail? We might scoff, but someone, somewhere must find that a useful division!

Knowing Me, Knowing That

Of course, we have to mention the classic terms mismatch. This is the one most school linguists will get to know through French, German or Spanish. And it is extremely common in Indo-European languages. It is the infamous know vs. know faultline, and a Twitter discussion on this pair is probably what got me thinking (yes, back to thinking) about this whole topic a few weeks ago.

Plenty of languages distinguish between knowing a fact and knowing a person. We have savoir / connaître (French), wissen / kennen (German), wiedzieć / znać (Polish) and saber / conocer (Spanish), to name but a few pairs. Others, conversely, collapse the two kinds of knowing into one, just like English does. Greek simply has ξέρω (kséro). Russian has знать (znat’).

Shaking hands and language learning. Image from freeimages.com

I know you, but do I know you? Image from freeimages.com

English, of course, used to make a distinction, as did other languages which lost the split. Before today’s know, Old English had witan and cunnan. Elsewhere, English has quietly dropped other nuanced pairs in this way. Take ask and ask for, referring to slightly different actions, but using the same verb. Look to a close cousin of English, like Norwegian, and they are separate terms: spørre (to ask, for example, a question) and be (to request, ask for something). Needless to say, Old English had both āscian and biddan before the former encroached upon the space of both.

Time to Come Home

We can round off this little wander through mismatched pairs with a couple of fairly fundamental human concepts with a lot of variation: time and home. Now, full-on linguistic determinism has had a bit of a drubbing. But while we may not experience these concepts differently from human to human, we still like to talk about them in different ways.

In English, we simply have time. That can be a period, a length of minutes, hours, days, or the general concept of the fourth dimension. Or it can be an occasion, a moment. I saw him three times, we say – just single points on a continuum.

However, many languages split these ideas up. We observe the passage of Zeit (German), καιρός (kairós, Greek), tíð (Icelandic), tid (Norwegian) and czas (Polish). But referring to a single moment, we talk about one Mal, φορά (forá), sinni, gang or raz. For fellow Greek learners and dabblers, this nice recent video sums it up well. (The channel is a fantastic language learning find, incidentally!)

And finally, to home. Whether you are going there, or are already through the front door and on the sofa, English uses the same term. But frequently, other languages use multiple terms to specify direction or position. Icelandic even has three – heim (homewards), heima (at home) and heiman (from home). This should be no surprise, since it also has hér, hingað and héðan for here, and þar, þangað and þaðan for there. That is three directional alternatives where English has dropped all of its hithers and thithers to favour just one. Is English poorer – or just simpler – for it?

The Lesson for Language Learning

Maybe the woolliness of English is not such a bad thing. The traction of English globally could partly be down to these multiple meanings bundled into single terms. Or perhaps broad sweep words like these even arose as a consequence of global use, collapsing categories and precise terminology that would otherwise add a fair bit of learning mileage.

All of this singles the language out a little unfairly, of course, given that English has more than its fair share of precise and verbose jargonese. And, on the flip side of the coin, plenty of single terms in other languages have multiple translations in English. Take the Greek word γήπεδο (yípedo) which can variously mean stadium, pitch, field or court.

But whatever our take on it, it is useful to remind ourselves of the patchwork of mismatches and poorly overlapping translations. Why? Because it is vital to our learning approach to grasp that different languages – even closely related ones – never map onto each other perfectly. As language learners, we never deal with simple, substitutive, one-to-one relationships, despite the apparent authority of dictionaries, phrasebooks and vocabulary guides.

My own takeaway from this? A reminder to rely less on learning via translation and using my native language as a crutch. This is one reason that my 2000 Polish words experiment was not exactly the path the fluency, for example. (Disclaimer: I went into that expecting the outcome, and have done plenty to remedy it since!)

Instead, it is good practice to seek out ways to internalise structures directly in the target language, so you can use them without having to compare them mentally with your own on the fly. Read plenty, and listen to lots. The less often you leap from your target language, the better.

And that brings us right back to thinking. When those interlanguage differences become so insignificant that you no longer notice them, you have really started to think in your target language.

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:

https://twitter.com/lindiebee/status/1258418252255911940?s=20 

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.