TTS can lend your learning some robotic voice magic. Image by Oliver Brandt on FreeImages.com

Disembodied Voices : Using TTS as a Native Speaker Boost

Native speaker modelling is a prerequisite for learning to speak Modern Foreign Languages. But when listening materials are scarce, or you struggle to find exactly the material you want to learn, then text-to-speech (TTS) can lend a helping hand.

Text-to-speech : native speakers out of thin air

TTS, or speech synthesis, has come on in leaps and bounds since the early days of tinny Speak ‘n’ Spell voices. At first mimicking chiefly (American) English, many projects have since diversified to conjure native speaker voices in many languages out of thin air. Polyglot TTS technologies such as Google Cloud’s offering are at the edge of machine learning developments, and sounding more and more human all the time.

Using these disembodied tongues for language learning is nothing new, of course. Switching the language of your digital voice assistant has become a pretty well-known polyglot trick for some robotic speaking practice. Siri has been speaking fluent Bokmål on my phone for a while now. As a result, I’ve become a dab hand at asking what the weather will be like in Norwegian!

TTS Toolkit

But as handy as voice assistants are, you can leverage the power of TTS much more directly than tapping into Siri or Alexa. At its most basic level, plain old TTS is brilliantly useful for hearing a spoken representation of a word or phrase you are unsure of.

For example, if you are tired of guessing how to reel off “das wäre sehr schön” in German (that would be very nice), never fear. Simply paste it into Google Translate and hit the speaker icon. The platform already offers and impressive number of languages with speech support.

Google Translate offers TTS features.

Google Translate offers TTS features – simply type / paste in your target language and click the speaker icon.

But it gets even better. Several other resources allow you to do more than just listen; they offer a download function too. This way, you can keep your most useful speech synthesis files and incorporate them into your own materials. Combined with vocabulary mining tools such as mass-sentence site Tatoeba, you can begin to curate large, offline collections of target language material with text and audio.

One notable and powerful multilingual voice synthesis site is TTSMP3.com. For a start, it offers plenty of language options. On top of that, several languages include a choice of voices, too.  More than enough to sate your curiosity when you wonder “How do you say that?”.

With a little Google digging, you may also find specialist TTS projects devoted to your particular language of study. For instance, Irish learners are spoilt by the Abair website (Abair means ‘say’ in Irish). Not only does it provide downloadable Irish narration, but it does this in a choice of three different regional accents. If you learn Irish too, you will well know what a godsend this is!

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Incorporating TTS MP3s

With your MP3s downloaded, you can now incorporate them into your own resources. Easiest of all is simply to insert them as media in PowerPoint presentations or Word documents. I personally like to add them manually to Anki cards to add audio support when I revise vocabulary.

The quick and easy way to reach Anki’s media folder on the desktop program is to open up the Preferences panel, then the Backups tab, and finally to tap the “Open backup folder” link that appears. In the same location as that backup directory, you should see another folder with the name collection.media. Anything you put in here will be synced along with the rest of your Anki data.

Note: always back up your Anki decks before tinkering in the program folders!

Anki's media folder

Anki’s media folder

Drop your saved TTS files into this folder. Note that subfolders still don’t seem to work reliably, so keep everything in that single folder. Logical file naming will definitely help!

Finally, when you create / edit a vocabulary note, use the following format to add your sound as a playable item, replacing filename as appropriate:

[sound:filename.mp3]

When viewed on your device, you should see a play button on flashcards with embedded sounds. Magic!

Anki card with embedded sound

An Anki card with embedded sound

If you prefer an even easier route, then there is an Anki plugin specially created for automatically including TTS into notes. I prefer the manual method, as it satisfies the the tech control freak in me.

A human touch

Of course, TTS is not a perfect substitute for a native speaker recording. For those times when only a human voice will do, Forvo is a goldmine. The site is replete with native sounds across a dizzying array of languages, all recorded by native speaker volunteers. Just as with the TTS examples above, the sounds can be downloaded for use in your own resources, too.

To round off our trek through native speaker sites – real and synthesised – just a final note on copyright. If you intend to share the resources you create, always check the usage notes of the website of origin. Sites commonly have fair use policies for non-commercial projects, so making resources for personal use is usually not a problem at all. If you plan to sell your resources, though, you may well need to opt for a commercial plan with the respective platform.

Robotic resources can plug a real gap in native speaker support, especially for niche languages, or niche subjects in more mainstream ones. Do you use TTS in innovative ways in your own learning? Have you come across other specialist or language-specific TTS projects? If so, please share in the comments!

Is the starting point for functional fluency a list of the right core words? Photo by acscom from freeImages.com

300 Words for Functional Fluency : Miss Swanson’s Elucidating Experiment

Decrepit, dusty old language learning books from bygone days are a guilty pleasure of mine. And sometimes, the most obscure, long-forgotten tomes throw up some shining treasures. Leafing through one such volume this week week, I stumbled across a fascinating gem of a tip that promises a helpful shortcut to functional fluency in a language.

The book in question – George McLennan’s “Scots Gaelic – A Brief Introduction – is not one of the oldest I’ve taken a ramble through, seeing its first impression in 1987. But it contains a curious factoid that served as the basis for a whole chapter on essential vocabulary. Let’s join Mr McLennan, and dive into the strange and curious world of the mysterious Miss Elaine Swanson.

Elaine Swanson and the 300 words

Swanson, explains McLennan, was “director of the New York Language Institute” around the 1930s. Now, her existence may well be apocryphal, as I am yet to find any modern reference to her – or the New York Language Institute – online or otherwise. But this mythical Miss Swanson is noted for one particular and exciting theory. She posited that a spoken vocabulary of just 300 words will suffice to get by in a language.

Being a thoroughly practical kind of person, and seeking empirical proof, she took it upon herself to attempt this feat in English for the duration of a whole three months. Apart from undoubtedly bemusing and irritating friends, relatives and colleagues, this exercise allowed her to compile a list of those core 300 words that represent a level of functional fluency.

Thanks to McLennan’s unearthing of her story, we too can benefit from the fruits of that hard work.

Functional fluency list

Here, arranged by the parts of speech. Clearly, a huge nod goes in George McLennan’s direction for printing this list with Gaelic translations in his book. Otherwise, Miss Swanson’s experiment might have been lost forever.

The final list actually comes in at a little under 300 words. Bear in mind that not every language will match up with these English terms exactly, so it will need a little adapting for other languages. McLennan notes that Gaelic, for example, has no single word for no – instead, this is paraphrased.

And one more note before we begin: some categories and inclusions might seem a little eccentric or unusual. Remember that this list was made in and for a very certain place and a very certain time. It manages to be fairly general, but will need some personalisation!

Miss Elaine Swanson’s Core Vocabulary

Prepositions

at, after, for, from, in, on, to, with

Conjunctions

and, or, if, but, so, that

Pronouns

I, he/she, you

Possessives

my, your, their

Interjections

hello, goodbye, oh!

Articles

the

Nature

fire, light, sun

Business

I assume that Mr McLennan has changed the currency words here for a British audience.

bank, pound, penny, money, office, manager, show, size, shop, trouble, way

Travel

boat, car, country, hotel, left, place, right, station, street, ticket, town, train

Objects

bag, book, letter, telephone, thing, story, word, picture, nothing

Days of the Week

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Modifiers

The original list uses “modifiers” as a kind of catch-all for anything descriptive, making this a mixed bag!

again, all, any, big, clean, cold, correct, down, easy, every, expensive, good, happy, here, how?, little, long, many, more, married, much, new, nice, no, not, now, old, one, other, piece, ready, same, slow, some, sorry, that, there, this, too, also, up, warm, very, well, what?, when?, where?, who?, why?

Food

Miss Swanson could almost be the original author of Duolingo’s “Food” topics…

bread, butter, sweets, coffee, egg, fruit, meat, milk, salt, sugar, vegetables, water

Time

day, evening, hour, minute, month, morning, night, time, today, tonight, tomorrow, week, yesterday

House

bath, floor, house, key, room, table

People

boy, brother, doctor, father, friend, girl, man, men, Miss, mother, Mr, Mrs, name, policeman, sister, woman, women

Clothes

cloth, clothes, coat, dress, hat, shoes, stockings, trousers

Colours

black, blue, green, red, white

Were there no yellow things in Miss Swanson’s world?

Verbs (and auxiliaries)

will, won’t, ask, be (am, are, is, was, were), can/can’t/could, come/came, do/does/don’t/did, eat/ate, excuse, gain, get/got, give, go/went, have/has/had, help, know/knew, learn, like, make/made, must, please, put, read, say/said, see/saw, sent, sit/sat, sleep/slept, smoke, start, stop, take/took, thank, think/thought, understand/understood, use, want, work, write/wrote

A critical eye

Evaluating the list for its practicality, the omissions are often more noteworthy than the generally helpful inclusions. Indeed, I end up with more questions than answers. Why no we or they in the pronoun section, for example? One English word frequency list places we above both he and she, so this might seem like something that needs tweaking. And where is the handy it, which sits firmly in the top ten most common English words in the same frequency table?

If frequency word lists were available (presumably Miss Swanson would have had access to these as director of a linguistic institute), why did she not use these to compile a core vocabulary? That said, this was a personal experiment, and – it is fair to say – probably not exactingly scientific. The aim of fluency was on the terms of the author’s everyday, not a one-size-fits-all average person.

Elsewhere, some of the collapsed categories seem tailored quite specifically to English. We can only assume that the inclusion of possessive their is the gender-neutral one to cover he/she more economically with a single word.

Window on a world

A particularly fascinating characteristic of the list is the choice of present/past verb pairs. Only certain past tenses are included (knew, slept etc.), while others verbs are given only in the present / infinitive form. Presumably the choice relates to the kind of polite, daily conversations the protagonist was trying to replicate during the experiment. Again, this fits with a definition of fluency as a working knowledge of language for the protagonist’s everyday – not everyone else’s. On a related note, it might be quite shocking to note the inclusion of the verb ‘smoke’ these days. Of course, such observations are part of the charm of finding personal vocabulary lists like these: their quirkily subjective nature.

Other initial observations relate to the economy of some of the lower-frequency type of vocabulary. You might wonder, like I did, why some terms are included when they might be creatively paraphrased using other items on the list. Personally, I question why “sun” is there, when “big light”, accompanied by pointing at the sky, would do. Slightly paleolithic, admittedly. Miss Swanson sounds much more civilised than that.

Pidgin English

As a guide to speaking a language, the list is clearly missing something. In particular, her conception of vocabulary is of a set of discrete, individual blocks, without any comprehensive reference to the glue holding them together in speech. There are no grammar rules implied in this list method beyond the few verb tense pairs, a couple of declined verb forms (was, does etc.) and the probably unnecessary inclusion of the definite article.

You can get away without grammar, of course, in effect using the vocabulary with your own logic to create a kind of pidgin. Will that make for ‘good’ French, German, Spanish and so on? No, go the purists. But will it be communicative if you need a basic core fast? Absolutely!

Verbs for lift-off

Miss Swanson does give a nod to a certain kind of sentence glue, however. One of the most striking things about this core vocabulary is the preponderance of verbs. They make up a considerable portion of the magic 300. And with good reason: this super-category of words does a colossal amount of heavy lifting in terms of intention and meaning in a sentence.

Now, I’ve always championed the verb as a key fluency factor. In fact, you can just call me the Verb Guy, since I can’t get enough of them (I write apps to drill them in my spare time!). Miss Swanson clearly spotted the communicative power of verbs, and focusing on verb tricks like employing modal sentence frames can really boost your conversational power, too.

A pinch of salt (and a spoonful of sugar)

So there you have it: a recipe for getting by on just a handful of words. Serve with a dollop of gloriously eccentric sugar and a medium-sized pinch of salt.

But even if the Magic 300 needs some tweaking to our individual circumstances, it strikes me that Miss Swanson was most definitely onto something. Her approach lights a pathway towards communicating – fast – in any language. Beyond that, the highly personal, practical nature of her list makes for a charming and intriguing window onto the world of someone in love with language and words. There is something  very familiar about Miss Swanson that is reflected in all of us linguaphiles.

This long-forgotten experiment attracts the extreme linguist in me, I must admit. If functional fluency can be acquired from a carefully selected core vocabulary, then maybe it is that simple to add a third, fourth, fifth language – and the rest!

What would your 300 look like? Could you get away with fewer than 300 words? What would you add or replace to Miss Swanson and Mr McLennan’s lists? And of the languages you know a little of, how many have you reached Swanson’s functional fluency in? Let us know in the comments!

Streamers

I Get So Emotional, Bébé : Using Positive Emotion to Improve Vocabulary Recall

That positive emotion enhances learning seems intuitive to us. How much more do we learn feeling motivated and wired, compared to those times we try to cram when feeling flat and uninspired?

Unsurprisingly, there is a heap of research that backs up the intuition. Some investigations, such as this 2017 paper, focus on the exact mechanism operating between emotion and memory. A key factor in enhanced learning, and later recall, appears to be the way positive, heightened emotion focuses the attention tightly on the stimulus – our learning material. The brain attaches a greater salience to the stimulus, encoding the information for readier recall later.

The importance of these “focal enhancements” of emotion on memory has spawned rafts of scientific papers on the subject. Classroom educators are already working these findings into their practice.

So how can it help us language learners?

Once more, with feeling

Firstly, creating happy thoughts at the point of initial memorisation is not always the easiest place to start happying up your learning. It is rather impractical to set up all-singing, all-dancing scenarios during your systematic vocabulary work. Regular, planned drilling with tools like Anki will always be a rather straightforward and plain – though invaluable – technique.

But you can plan to use new material in a way that associates material with a positive emotional response later. This takes a little forward-thinking, and involves setting up occasions where language use triggers smile momentsthose socially rewarding, oxytocin-bound interactions that feed our social reward circuits and give us warm, fuzzy feelings. Precisely those feelings are the ones to give our words and phrases salience within the recording brain.

If you have face-to-face lessons, for example, is there a humorous or colloquial phrase using new vocabulary that you can roll off to your tutor? Quotation archive sites are great to search for these. Similarly, could you Google a joke or pun using some of your recent word additions, and reel it off to your captive audience?

Making a conversation partner smile or laugh with an unexpected aphorism is a wonderful way to unleash that elusive burst of pride / surprise / joy. Chances are that you will recall the associated words or phrases much more readily than otherwise. You will have tied the material to the lived experience of positive feedback.

Anticipated emotion

Setting the scene for future reward leads us to another key link between emotion and learning: anticipation. Looking forward to the fruits of your mental labour is an extremely powerful motivator. Just the expectation of feedback is enough to increase engagement and focus – and through that, memory. For example, one particular research paper concludes that simply anticipating speedy feedback sufficed to increase performance.

The easiest practical lesson to take from this is that we need something to look forward to when learning. Working with a tutor who supplies constructive, regular feedback is one route. But even as a lone learner, there are some simple ways to build anticipation into your positive feedback loop.

Informal test-based feedback, for example, is available in all sorts of languages online. This German self-test on the Goethe Institute site is a great example. On the other hand, if you like your feedback more formalised, cultural institutes frequently offer official exams of proficiency. Many lone learners work towards gaining accreditation such as the Bergenstest in Norwegian, or the JLPT in Japanese. The anticipation of getting solid results can drive a learner forward, especially in the absence of direct teacher or peer feedback. Failing that, even the goal of doing well on a competitive platform like Duolingo can inspire a positive buzz.

Returning to our gregarious friend oxytocin, social anticipation can be the warmest and fuzziest kind. Using your languages socially need not mean a fully-fledged trip abroad, of course. Any kind of interaction, be it at a local language café group, with native speakers at work, or just fellow learners, can be the emotional carrot to your language learning donkey.

Clowning around

Of course, humour is something that works particularly well in these social settings. Getting a laugh from creative, or – let’s joyfully admit it – silly use of language, can be a nice way to make vocabulary stick, too.

The proof of this is written all over the internet, and it starts with Duolingo. The behemoth of online language learning resources famously uses comedic sentences throughout its language modelling. People who find something funny want to talk about it, naturally. And Duolingo users have turned to one particular feed (forgive the name) to share their favourite eccentricities of the platform.

The moral of the tale? Use inane, ridiculous, silly language to practise. Be a clown. Talk about it. Share it with fellow learners and subject your wider family and friends to it. Laugh – and remember.

 

The joy of teaching

Finally, it is hard to underestimate one joy close to the hearts of linguaphiles: the joy of teaching. The fact that teaching others helps our own learning is well documented. But that thrill of seeing something click for someone else plays right along with the positive emotion game.

Bust this myth before you start: you do not have to be an expert to teach something. You just need a bit of knowledge you can share with someone else. If you have a learning buddy, or compliant family member or friend, share with them your most recent observations about your target language. Make your explanation as interesting and illuminating as possible – and enjoy the click when it happens. Remembering the moment you taught the material to another person will be a superb hook to remember the material itself.

Little and often

As the examples show, working positive emotion into your learning routine does not mean maintaining constant jollity. Emotional content need not be dramatic or earth-shattering. In fact, it should not be so. The same research suggests that strong, negative emotional states like stress can have the opposite effect.

What’s more, we clearly cannot sustain an environment of constant emotional excitement. Even if that were possible, it would be counter-productive. Our brains are not so easily tricked. It would simply become our new ‘normal’, and all the salience benefits lost.

Instead, the methods outlined above are some routes to routinely and subtly get happy with your language learning and practice. Stay positive, stay connected, and enjoy all those motivation and memory benefits!

 

Clontarf, Dublin: achievement is often about the journey, not the destination.

Achievement on our terms: language learning as the joy of exploration

If ambition drives you to excel in a field as (traditionally) academic as languages, chances are you are achievement-oriented. Striving for success – however we choose to measure it – is part and parcel of loving the polyglot craft. Achievement gives us a buzz.

As independent learners, however, we are free to define achievement however it works best for us. It’s something that occurred to me on a trip to Dublin this weekend, a break that prompted me to dip my now-and-again toe into the Irish language once more.

Strictly casual

You might have a similar relationship with one of your languages. Irish fascinates me. It is both somehow familiar, yet so different from the Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages I usually work with. It fills a missing piece in my understanding of the Indo-European family. For all that, I love dabbling in it through the odd couple of lessons on Duolingo, or a leaf through a basic Irish grammar.

That said, me and Irish are involved on a strictly casual basis. I have no particular goal in mind. No exams, no trip to the Gaeltacht to chat with locals. I just enjoy exploring when the mood takes me.

The way I approach Irish reminds me of the ‘down the rabbit hole’ experience many have with encyclopaedia site like Wikipedia. Browsing a single article can lead the reader to click link after link, hopping from one article to another. Exploration is the end in itself, the achievement won. Whatever the content, however idle the amble, we are just that little bit richer at the end for it.

The result? Walking around public spaces in Ireland is now a series of ‘aha!’ moments. This weekend, it chuffed me to pieces to recognise the occasional word and structure in the Irish language signs  in and around Dublin.

My proudest (and geekiest) achievement: recognising eclipsis on a sign for a men’s swimming area. It’s a lovely moment when you realise that even the most superficial amount of learning can help make sense of the world around you.

https://twitter.com/richwestsoley/status/1147912238373769221

Tantalising tangents

Achieving via the tangential route is nothing new for me, and you have likely experienced it too. At school, I was a diligent and effective student. But regularly, my teachers would drag me back on course as I’d drift off on some off-the-beaten-track knowledge expedition, away from the prescribed curriculum and onto (for me) exciting, uncharted territory.

In language classes, I was eager to express what had meaning for me – usually what I had been up to lately. Without fail, I’d thumb straight past the pages on “a strawberry ice cream, please” to the appendix reference on the past tense. That was where my spark of interest lay. Learning by personal detour meant that my sense of achievement was so much greater.

As my language journey progressed to college, one route led me to ‘collecting’ terms for birds and other wildlife in German. Useful for my A-level exam prep? Perhaps not. But fascinating and fun to the nascent language geek in me? You bet!

It hit homes in this lovely tweet I spotted recently, which neatly sums up our freedom to learn:

 Achievement on your terms

The fact is that the polyglot community has already uprooted language success from its traditional environment of formalised, assessed learning. Freed from the shackles of exam performance, there are as many reasons to learn and enjoy as there are methods to learn.

We are incredibly lucky to be part of a learning community that minimises achievement pressure like this. Even if that achievement is simply the joy of exploration and wonder, it is no less valid than acing written exams on a university course.

We are our own measure of success. Learn what, and how, you love. And let that be your achievement!

It’s a date! Planning for language success with extreme calendarising

As a naturally busy (read: untidy) mind, the discovery of proper planning in recent years has been a godsend for my language learning. From happy-go-lucky, read-a-few-pages-here-and-there amorphous rambler (goodness knows how I managed to amble my way through university), an organised me rose from the ashes of chaos. The past decade or so has seen me become a much better learner for it. That bright but scatterbrained schoolkid who had to attend interventional self-organisation training at school finally realised the error of his ways.

The secret isn’t particularly well-kept, mind. Just the discipline to set weekly targets, combined with a bit of creative to-do listing using software like Evernote and Wunderlist, are enough to clear the path to a wholly more efficient kind of learning.

There’s always room for improvement, though. To-do lists are great. They’re just not particularly precise.

You probably know the issue well, too. You have a list of things you want to do by the end of the day. But come the evening, you realise that you’ve left them all rather late. That is the best way to turn tasks you might otherwise find fun or engaging into chores.

It’s a date

Recently, I came across an article about a woman who halted that drift into nebulous indolence by calendarising everything. Now, her example might come across as, well… a little extreme, as far as productivity drives go. Rising at 4:30am, scheduling time with family and friends to the minute – well, my life isn’t that busy. But there’s definitely something in this approach worth trying.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending some moments each evening to schedule explicitly each to-do on the next day’s calendar entry. It’s a flexible schedule, of course, with plenty of slack built in (I’m neither monster nor machine!). But giving my daily plan some solid structure has made a big difference.

Planning a day of leisure and learning through explicit calendarising

Planning a day of leisure and learning through explicit calendarising

Following a plan you made the night before is a little like playing the role of both instructor and learner. In pre-planning, you determine the course of action for your future self. Following that route, there is a sense that this past self is instructing your present course of action.  And for me, that purposeful split personality, separating planner-self and learner-self, both busts drift and yields a solid boost for discipline.

Seize the day

As your own day-to-day educational planner, you are designing your own curriculum as you go along. The upshot of this is that the day view of Google Calendars suddenly becomes extremely useful. And that goes for that wealth of other free tools, which suddenly become invaluable planning buddies.

The idea of creating your own ‘personal college’ with a disciplined daily approach has relevance well beyond languages. It has gained some traction particularly in the US, where university costs have become prohibitive for some.

Super-learner Scott Young, for example, took advantage of free online materials to work through the entire MIT computer science curriculum in his own time. With a raft of free platforms and resources available to linguists, we are perfectly placed to do the same. Playing the role of your very own course architect and calendarising curriculum scheduler, you can reap similar rewards.

So am I cured of my chaotic tendencies? Well, I never want to lose that bit of slack I still build into my routines. I think a little bit of chaos is good, especially for creative souls. But a little extreme calendarising gives me just enough structure to balance things on the right side of discipline.

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

Building linguistic muscle memory with Duolingo

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

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

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

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

So why is Duolingo so useful?

A Duolingo leaderboard

A Duolingo leaderboard

Muscle memory

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

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

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

Automating those little details

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

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

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

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

Duolingo and the lost details

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

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

Duolingo has even being training the sloppiness out of my language habits. Learning Norwegian as a German speaker can be incredibly handy, since the languages are fairly close. However, assuming similarity can result in mistakes. Using Duolingo on both of them has thrown up some surprising discrepancies in the gender of cognates between the two languages. More often than not, these relate to the convention around how words from classical languages, like Greek and Latin, are absorbed into the language. Here are a few:

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

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

Need for speed…

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

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

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

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

…but recognising road bumps

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

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

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

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

Learning is a journey, not an outcome

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

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

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

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

Lovely Leaflets: Making the most of foreign language tourist ephemera

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

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

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

Scrapbooking is your space-saving friend

First things first: these things take up room!

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

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

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

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

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

Scrapbooking tools

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

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

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

How to work with leaflets as learning resources?

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

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

Vocabulary mining

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

Translation

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

Play the interpreter

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

In your own words

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

Local language for local leaflets

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

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

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

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

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

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

Hot Politics: cooking up language learning opportunities from election posters

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

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

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

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

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

Putting politics to good use

So why is this kind of language so useful?

Language microbites

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

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

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

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

Opinion boosters

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

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

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

Politics on the street: DGB poster in Berlin

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

Talking points

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

Politics on the street: Die Grünen poster in Berlin

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

Zeitgeist barometers

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

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

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

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

 

Election watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is simply inescapable.

Irish is everywhere

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

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

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

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

Irish inspiration for your own language learning

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

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

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

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

* Or that of Scotland or Wales!

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

Anki magic tricks – by serendipity

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

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

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

Back to basics

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

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

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

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

Protect template images

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

A customised Icelandic card in Anki

An Icelandic card in Anki –
complete with flag!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two tricks for the price of one

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

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

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

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