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

Building linguistic muscle memory with Duolingo

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

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

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

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

So why is Duolingo so useful?

A Duolingo leaderboard

A Duolingo leaderboard

Muscle memory

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

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

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

Automating those little details

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

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

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

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

Duolingo and the lost details

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

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

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

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

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

Need for speed…

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

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

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

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

…but recognising road bumps

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

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

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

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

Learning is a journey, not an outcome

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

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

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

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

Lovely Leaflets: Making the most of foreign language tourist ephemera

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

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

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

Scrapbooking is your space-saving friend

First things first: these things take up room!

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

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

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

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

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

Scrapbooking tools

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

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

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

How to work with leaflets as learning resources?

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

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

Vocabulary mining

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

Translation

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

Play the interpreter

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

In your own words

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

Local language for local leaflets

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

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

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

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

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

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.

Lots of books - nice reading material!

Foreign language reading: books that speak to your heart

Building fluency beyond the basics requires regular, plentiful exposure to your foreign language. And there are few easier ways to get that exposure than through reading for pleasure.

As a lover of books, however, choice can pose a problem. Faced with a treasure of tomes in an overseas bookshop, the bibliophile language lover has a dilemma. Which book should be the one to focus all that effort on for the next few weeks?

It has to be a careful choice. After all, reading in a foreign language takes a degree of commitment and effort we never think twice about in our native tongue. Choose unwisely, and that book might simply end up gathering dust after just a few pages of hard slog and frustration.

Pick a winner, though, and you might end up learning much more than new words and structures: you might get a real glimpse into the heart and soul of your target language country.

It’s a serious business, this reading lark.

Reading expeditions

Serious, but also fun, of course. With the purpose of rooting out these special books, I like to make every trip abroad a reading expedition. And naturally, top of the list of places to visit on these holidays are bookshops. Bookshops fire me up more than all the monuments, museums and other must-sees in the world can. Most people bring back souvenirs: I bring back a book.

Through the book-hunting years, I have gradually learnt what to watch out for. The top danger is over-excitement: pop out for one book, and come back with five. It is too tempting.

But more is not always better. A surfeit of choice can overwhelm you, and through simply not knowing where to start when you get those books home, you might only read one or two of them while the others sit on a shelf. And clutter is the last thing we need for tidy minds.

That’s why I have a rule, now: only one book per trip!

Books that speak to the heart

Limiting your book-buying to one tightens the criteria for choice. The duty of that single book takes on great significance: it must speak to your heart. Soon after your purchase, you will be on the trip home, just you and your chosen book, all the others another holiday away (or, at least, requiring expensive overseas postage).

Put simply, choose what you want to read – not what you think you should read.

In my first years of studying German, for instance, I had an idea that I should read great, classic novels. I plumped for a couple of Thomas Mann editions, imagining how enriched I would be after devouring these acclaimed works.

You probably see where this is going. Predictably, they were extremely tough work. Instead of feeling clever, the whole process was incredibly frustrating. I even wondered whether I was actually just no good at this languages game after all.

The problem? That kind of material would never be my usual choice when reading for pleasure in my own language, let alone German. It just didn’t speak to my heart.

Letting go of cultural baggage

It can be hard to admit that perceived ‘intellectual’ material isn’t our cup of tea. We are bombarded with all sorts of cultural expectations about what is of worth in learning. If you value education, you can fall into these prestige traps, as I did. I thought that as a ‘serious’ learner, I was supposed to be tackling this kind of stuff.

But then, one day, I discovered Harry Potter – through the medium of German!

I bought the third book of the series, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, as a teacher on a trip to Germany with a group of GCSE kids. They had read the books in English, of course. This was 2003 – what teenager hadn’t at that point?

One of the lads spotted the cover of the German edition in a shop, and started raving about it. To see what all the fuss was about, I took a chance on a copy.

A few pages in, and I was hooked.

Now if only I had skipped the Thomas Mann novels and hopped straight to J.K.Rowling. Nothing against Thomas Mann, of course – his novels are rightfully German classics. But the fantastical thrills of the Potter world just spoke to me and my interests more. I love a good fantasy tale – no shame in that at all. Suddenly, reading was a joy again.

Ploughing through all seven volumes really put the stamp on my German fluency. By the end, I was thinking – and dreaming – in German. To this day, I thank J.K.Rowling (and her translators) for that.

Translation versus authenticity?

Now, the purists might grumble. Harry Potter isn’t exactly authentic target language material. Though translators are skilled native speakers, Hogwarts is not the path to cultural familiarity with the German-speaking world.

But what Harry Potter did give me was a springboard. I clearly loved reading that genre in German – so why not seek out the same kind of material from bona fide native German writers? Writers like Wolfgang Hohlbein, Cornelia Funke and Bernhard Hennen, whose books sit comfortably next  to Rowling’s as works of great imagination.

Familiar works in translation, especially children’s books, may be a great way in to reading for pleasure in the target language. But they can also be jump points for exploration of home-grown examples of your favourite genre, too.

Diversifying

Of course, sometimes you just want to take a chance on a book, to stray from the beaten path. One of my stand-out reads of recent months was Firas Alshater’s Versteh einer die Deutschen, a quirky look at Germany through Syrian eyes. It is told with such good humour and warmth that I couldn’t put it down.

This was the one, single book purchase I allowed myself on a trip to Hamburg in November. Not quite Harry Potter, you could say. But I picked it out on a whim, just because the character on the cover intrigued me and I liked the sound of the blurb. It paid off – I can now add autobiography, humour and society to the list of German book sections to browse on my next trip.

Read whatever you fancy, and not what you think you should. Let a book speak to your heart before you commit to it. And never question your honest, heartfelt book choices. Believe me, you will fly through your foreign language books if you follow these principles. Happy reading!

A short study break may do your brain the world of good between the book marathons. (Image from freeimages.com)

The returner learner effect : how a study break can be a language learning boost

Brains are mysterious things. Sometimes, they seem to display most counter-intuitive behaviour. Just take the study break, for example. Give yourself a few months off a language, and you might expect to be a bit rusty as a returner learner. But sometimes, on your return, you get that joyful feeling that it never went away. And somehow, could it feel even more solid than before?

It’s more common than you think.

Budding polyglots, by their nature, experience the returner learner effect a lot. Since it is rarely a good idea to study more that one or two languages at once, there can be stretches where any language aficionado is not actively working on several of them. Often, there may not even be opportunities to speak them regularly.

Some maintenance is essential, of course. And we can keep things ticking over with a weekly tactical schedule that at least gives a nod to all of our projects. But it is almost inevitable that some languages will be put into a deeper sleep than others.

Software-Switching

Never fear. I actually like to think that we are made to use our brains like this. Short-term, or working memory, for example, can only hold around seven items for processing at any one time. On a longer-term scale, learnt skills, like languages, are also processing-hungry programs that cannot all be run altogether at full capacity at the same time.

Computer analogies, although not always perfect, can be neatly apt ways to think about the brain. Just today, this nostalgic thread about early 1980’s, disk-based computing bubbled up into my Twitter timeline. What better metaphor for the nature of our active and passive languages? There is certainly an element of software-switching going on when I prepare to ‘load up’ a language I haven’t used in a while. Although it’s not quite “Insert Russian: Disk 4”, it can feel like some gear-shifting is required to switch a language back on.

Let sleeping languages lie…

For various reasons, I had parked my Norwegian in the cerebral software archive a few months ago. For one thing, I had enjoyed a couple of trips to Oslo already by last Summer. Now it was time for other plans, other countries, and other languages – at least for a while.

Not only that, but the perennial polyglot itch was making itself felt. I wanted to try new things, and reach new levels with my other projects. My Norwegian was at a decent level; it could withstand a little rest.

Of course, rest should never mean oblivion. Language skills are precious, and it is essential to have a maintenance plan for all of them. Optioned Anki decks is a favoured way to finely control the maintenance all of those you care about keeping, for example. In this way, maintenance can chug along in a fairly low-key fashion.

As long as you do something, those disks should only require occasional dusting to stay serviceable.

And so it was in my case. Along with occasionally reading the news at nrk.no, I kept my Norwegian on a low boil since the end of last Summer.

…until their day comes again

Ultimately, the time comes when sleeping languages grow impatient for the limelight again. My own travel plans had finally come full circle again, settling on Norway (a more irresistible return destination after each trip, believe me – it’s never too long before that scenery exerts its pull!). The time seemed right to dust off the Bokmål.

When bringing your languages out of storage, you need a strategy – something to help load those programs back into memory.

My own, personal favourite is to kickstart passive use via a podcast blitz.

I chose my old favourite Norwegian podcast to stage a return: the fantastic Språkteigen by NRK. It is a real gem for language lovers with a bit of norsk.

In fact, I had been putting off listening to the show for a while. There was a fear that I might have slipped back further than I thought. Would I understand a single word? Should I have been spending more time on Norwegian maintenance? To ease myself back in gently, I selected a low-pressure time – listening on the treadmill at the gym – and clicked play on the programme.

I had nothing to worry about. I was hooked by the subject matter from the first few lines, and zoned right back into it as I listened and ran. By the end, I’d jogged for thirty minutes without realising it, and felt boosted by how much I understood.

It almost seemed like I could understand more than back when I was actively studying.

The choice of material is crucial, of course. I chose something I’d missed listening to.  I wanted to understand.

The returner learner effect

That feeling of being better after a break is down to a number of elements:

Their effects are felt most keenly just in those days when we return to the language. If you select your return material wisely, you can maximise the motivation that provides. Feed on the renewed confidence. In a subject area that demands so much self-confidence compared to others, it is a rare chance to say: yes, I am not bad at this at all!

Building back active production

Of course, a dose of realism is also required. In my case, I had spent six months not speaking Norwegian at all. The extent of my Bokmål use had been completely passive. While the ‘background task’ effect of the brain may well benefit my active production of Norwegian in the long run, I must still acknowledge that work needs to be done to build back my speaking confidence.

But the lesson here is that all those hours of hard work were not in vain. The brain has the learner’s back. In those quiet months, it works on, patiently distilling that mass of material into a solid skill – one that was ready to load back into memory when needed.

Like all effects, the post-study-break boost wanes as the reality of the study regime kicks in again. You will feel challenged once more. That said, it would be worrying not to feel that way. To make a comparison to working out at the gym, it is often when the muscles feel most taxed that the builder makes the greatest gains.

However transitory the returner learner effect, seize upon it to ride a fresh wave of confidence after a study break. Maximise it by choosing media that you know you will respond positively to. Let it reassure you that your brain is on your side, whatever tricky conundrums language learning throws your way!

Few things give more motivation than the prospect of having an audience for your efforts. (Image from freeimages.com)

Motivation lacking? Do it for an audience!

Motivation can sometimes seem like a scarce resource. Simply wanting to achieve, for achievement’s sake, might not suffice to push you over the finish line. You need a bit extra.

I found myself in this situation recently, working on a goal that straddled both language learning and software development. For some time, I’d wanted to create something completely different from my usual fare and out of my comfort zone: an app for learning and practising verb meanings in Mandarin Chinese. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to go for it.

Learning through making

Now for me, Mandarin Chinese is a totally new and exciting departure. I haven’t studied many non-Indo-European languages (some Modern Hebrew and a tiny bit of Japanese barely count). Putting together apps in new languages is one route I use as an introduction to them for my own learning. Therefore, the idea of working on a brand new one filled me with positive anticipation!

That was, at first. Getting started was easy. With reliable sources for the learning content, and a solid framework app to build it into, I got off to a good start.

However, I soon slowed down to a halt.

What was wrong? Was the language content no longer captivating me? No, not that – I still revelled in the new words and concepts I was learning along the way. Was the technical side losing its fascination? Not at all, as I was still spending quality time on similar technical projects without any signs of boredom. So what had happened to my motivation?

The problem, I realised, was this: it is hard to work in a bubble.

Lone ranger

Humans are social creatures. We are built to be involved with other people in all of our exploits. Working with others, either through study buddying or teaching, can be a real shot in the arm for language learning, for example. We simply work better when we are not isolated.

The truth is, my Chinese app endeavours had become divorced from this fact. I was a lone ranger, operating in a bubble. The issue was not simply that I was developing alone. There are plenty of very successful, lone app developers! Rather, I was creating it with nobody in mind (beyond myself).

This resulted in fuzzy goal definition. No deadlines, no direction, no sense of wider purpose. Instead, just a vague ambling towards an ill-defined end point, where I would have eventually created something I deemed useful and learnt a bit along the road.

So what to do?

The obvious answer was actually right under my nose the whole time. A good friend of mine is currently learning Chinese at level A1-2 and is an iPhone user. Via Apple’s TestFlight platform, I could easily roll out test versions of the app online for my fellow linguist buddy to test out. What better audience could I wish for?

Performance anxiety

At this point, you might wonder how on Earth it took so look for that solution to occur to me. Moving in language learning circles, I have countless friends studying any number of languages at a given point. You’d think I would be badgering them constantly with new app ideas.

The issue is that sometimes, the idea of an audience for your work / efforts / brainchild / ambitions is downright scary. We all crave approval from our peers. Self-doubt gets in the way. It requires no small degree of bravery to put yourself out there, open to criticism (constructive or otherwise) from people you think a lot of.

Will they like what I produce? Can they be honest with me about it if they don’t? Would they think less of me if my initial attempts miss the mark?

It is utterly normal and completely human to be put off by this kind of performance anxiety.

Perhaps the best advice I’ve come across is simple optimism: think the best of your audience. If you enlist the help of friends, then already, the most supportive people have your back. Most people, in my experience, truly do want to help, rather than knock you down.

Needless to say, initial reports from my tester friend are warm, well-meaning and positive: new words learnt, fun had learning them, and genuinely useful feedback given.

And that feeling of being helpful provides a ton of motivation.

Language learning for an audience

The example I’ve given might seem like a very specific case of language learning tech. But you can apply the same principle to language learning, pure and simple.

First, ask: who could my audience be? As a linguist, there are myriad scenarios you can imagine as end goals for the task of communicating.

Do you have workplace colleagues you can make smile with a few words in their native language? Are you planning a trip to the target language country and want to attend an event where you have to speak that language exclusively?

It needn’t even be a speaking task. Perhaps there is a social media group you’d like to join in with. I recently joined a Norwegian music discussion forum on Facebook, for example. The desire to chat with fellow fans is a great audience-based motivation to brush up my norsk.

Once your audience is defined, let go of your performance anxiety. Have faith in the kindness of others to help you reach your goals. Use humour, as it can really break down barriers. And above all, enjoy the interaction!

Whatever your chosen audience, incorporate it into your goal planning and let it become your motivation. That single social aspect will so much more sharply define your language learning objectives!

Incidentally, if any iOS users are interested in being a tester for my nascent app, please let me know!

A new calendar means new language learning resolutions. But how to stick to them? (Image from freeimages.com)

Five Ways to Stick to Language Learning Resolutions

We are well into the New Year now, and – if you are like me – you probably have a list of language learning resolutions as long as your arm. But doesn’t cold, damp January feel like the longest and hardest month for keeping to them? It can seem far too easy to get discouraged.

Never fear: here are some sure-fire tips for staying on track (or getting back onto it). 2019, we are coming for you!

Set reminders

Set your watch for timely language learning

If it’s a case of simply not remembering to stick to your routines, you can employ a little digital help. Setting training reminders on your devices is one of the easiest ways to enforce a new routine and begin habit-building.

My to-do and reminder app of choice is Wunderlist, which is both free, and goes far beyond a simple reminders app. For instance, you can subdivide your lists of tasks into separate sections, like simply ‘Languages’, or even one for each of your languages. It also allows for repeated tasks, which are perfect for daily and weekly learning tactics. Ticking these off regularly creates a real sense of ongoing achievement.

If you are a fan of Evernote (a fantastic, yet unsung hero of language learning!), you can use its reminder feature to similar effect. I use Evernote for longer-term planning, and setting reminders for regular reviews of planning documents is a resolution-saver.

Also worth checking out are Coach.me, Streaks and, of course, your plain old smartphone to-do / calendar apps. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best.

Tie your language learning to other habits

Our lives are already complex webs of routine and habit. Leverage that by linking your new, desired behaviours into what you already do.

Jogging is a routine you can easily tie new language learning habits to. (Image from freeimages.com)

Regular walk? Use that to listen to target language material like podcasts. Regular commute? Make sure you have plenty of foreign language Netflix downloaded for offline viewing. Spare minutes after getting ready for work? Do your 5-10 minutes of Anki or Duolingo.

You can find multiple points where your existing habits can anchor your new ones, too. With apps, taking advantage of a variety of platforms gives you multiple entry points in your daily routine. I use the Anki app on my bus and train journeys, but open up the desktop app for a quick revise before I start work at my desk.

If apps feature heavily in your language learning life, try chaining them. Piggy-back your new platforms on the back of an already well-established one. Already doing 5-10 minutes of Duolingo every day? Try coupling your Verb Blitz or Memrise right onto the tail end of that.

Enlist help

Strength in numbers - enlist the help of others in your language learning resolutions. (Image from freeimages.com)

Strength in numbers!

Personal goals shouldn’t be a lonely business. Do you have friends or relatives who can lend a hand? A supportive partner to remind you to do your daily Anki every day could work wonders! Tell them how much it means to you to succeed in your language learning goals. Getting them on board will be an invaluable source of encouragement.

A popular concept in peer coaching is the accountability partner. This is a friend or colleague you regularly meet up with to compare progress on goals. Each participant’s goals can be quite disparate, as the function of the accountability partner is to act as a sounding board and motivator. All you need is someone else who is also working on self-improvement goals for 2019.

You can also help others to learn while helping your own goals along, too. We learn, and consolidate previous learning, through teaching. Even sharing an overview of recent progress with others can help you to reflect critically on your own learning. With that in mind, why not commit to sharing progress in your resolutions with your nearest and dearest?

It’s also worth mentioning the immense value a professional coach can offer, if you really want to bring in the cavalry. I circumnavigated some sticky learning impasses in 2018 thanks to working on my goals with a coach.

Get right back on that horse!

Controversial fact: the “New Year” in “New Year’s Resolutions” is the least important part of all!

The truth is that New Year’s Resolutions are lent a bit of artificial magic by dint of that special date of 1st January.

If you have slipped up, there is no need to write off your goals until the next year. The best time to start again is always now. As with a diet, saying “I’ll be good from tomorrow” is a delay tactic that you should never fall for.

It might help to regauge how you divide up your blocks of time. Let’s face it: an entire year is a very long stretch for goal planning. Instead, productivity writer Brian Moran suggests a 12-week cycle, which has worked a treat for me.

Don’t burn out too soon

Finally, make sure to keep yourself mentally and physically in kilter. Pushing yourself too hard means burning out, or worse, coming to resent your own resolutions.

Learning to build pace and pause into your routine is as important a skill as fully-fledged language learning work. Too much rigidity can stifle the most enthusiastic learner – aim for self-kindness by allowing for fluidity in your plan.

Regular audits of your progress help, too. It may be that you set the bar too high for January 1st. Be honest with yourself. Can you scale back slightly before stepping up again later? Better to do that, than give up completely.

A recent example from my own 2019 challenges illustrates the need to be flexible, and revisit / reformulate resolutions on a regular basis. One ambitious target I set myself was to make at least one overseas trip a month to practise my languages. Now, that might sound difficult, but it is quite possible on a budget; there are a number of tools to source cheap flight and hotel dates. But, alas, at the mercy of dynamic travel pricing, it looked like I might miss that target in the very first month.

Not to worry: I’ve reformulated that goal as: make trips to at least 12 different overseas destinations in 2019. Resolution rescued!

Whatever your goals for 2019, let these guiding principles keep you on track for language learning success. Here’s to a fruitful twelve months… and beyond!

Journaling, or writing a diary, can be a wonderful tool in your language learning kit.

Dear Diary… Get personal with language learning through journaling

Sometimes you just have to let it all out. To that end, journaling, or keeping a regular record of the important events in your life in writing, is as old as the hills. From the Latin diurnalis (‘of the day’), diary writing has been both an emotional outlet and historical ledger for countless people. Some, like Samuel Pepys, ended up becoming very famous for it. In fact, the earliest evidence of diary keeping we have dates back nearly 2000 years.

Today, experts continue to expound upon the benefits of journaling. Amongst other things, the positive impact of diary writing on mental health is a popular topic for discussion.

But what if you could tap into some of that power for your own language learning? There are some solid reasons why journaling counts amongst the ultimate daily writing tasks for language learners. Here are just a few of them, along with some tips on getting into language journaling as a total newcomer.

Mine relevant vocabulary

Have you ever found your learning material a little impersonal? Mass-produced language courses cater for the common denominator. The topics you study can sometimes feel a little disconnected from your real life circumstances. As useful as ‘At the doctor’ might be as a vocab theme, it’s not something than many have many learners enthused at first glance.

Conversely, journaling about your own life makes for a beautifully personalised learning journey. As a vocabulary mining exercise, the kind of things you will look up will be very relevant to your life.

Describing people, places and experiences that are important to you increases the salience of each word, and, through that, increasing the likelihood of easy recall. Looking up and claiming those new vocabulary items will give you a real sense of ownership over them.

Conversational relevance

What’s more, the kind of language you use while journaling carries over wonderfully to conversational speech. Think about the kinds of thing we chat to friends about: what we’ve been up to lately, where we’ve been, who we’ve seen and what we think about it all. Journaling is like a masterclass in everyday gossip. Soon, you’ll be chatting over the garden fence in the target language like the best of them!

Connect emotionally with learning

There is no less effective learning than learning for learning’s sake. The brain must regard learning as relevant, and make emotional connections, in order for material to stick. Think of it this way: learning a language should not be about creating a box labelled, say, ‘French’, and filling it up with new things. Rather, it should be about weaving in a whole new set of connections from new ‘French’ material into your existing neural network. Journaling is a fantastic way to stitch together new language material with your existing emotional world.

Make learning cathartic

Journaling can be cathartic. You can work out your everyday frustrations on the page. And by doing so, you start to associate the target language with those warm, fuzzy feelings of emotional release. These kinds of positive associations make for very strong learning experiences!

Motivation to write

Some skills are easily overlooked when learning a language independently. Writing, in particular, is an easy one to neglect. Part of the reason for this is motivation, again; it is difficult for the brain to grasp a point to arbitrary written tasks traditionally given by textbooks and teachers.

Not so with journaling – for all of the reasons above, diary writing can light a fire under some learners’ language bonfires. It can be an absorbing, steam-letting, exciting exercise, and one that you look forward to every couple of days.

The potential to care about what you write about can be nurtured, too. Why not invest in a shiny new Moleskine to journal in, for example? Taking pride in your own writing is yet another route to encouraging your skill to blossom.

A unique souvenir

The best journal writing is the kind that you can look back on weeks, months and even years later, and re-experience your adventures with travel and languages. Writing about your travels in the target language country – in the target language – is a wonderful way to record those moments for posterity.

While you travel, you will also come across lots of new words on public signs, posters and similar. Referencing them in your writing, perhaps even illustrated with pictures, will keep them safe and help you commit useful ones to memory.

Your own secret code

Of course, the chances are that writing in another language lends a whole new level of secrecy to your writing. This takes us back to Pepys, who used a code based on Spanish, French and Italian for some observations deemed a little too sensitive for prying eyes!

Journaling tools and software

Of course, there is nothing quite like keeping a journal the old school way, in that beautiful Moleskine. But there are myriad digital tools to choose from, too.

Two dedicated journaling apps, however, stick out of the pack for me. They have both been designed specifically for the task of diary keeping, and aim to encourage the user to write. They also come with extra features such as password protection, which could be handy if you are writing down your most sensitive secrets – whether or not they are in another language!

Day One

Apple aficionados will certainly want to take a look at Day One. This premium app – currently available only for OS and iOS – is both beautiful simple and clean, as well as feature-packed. If you combine language learning with travel, its geo-tagging of posts makes it a particularly valuable investment for the language journal keeper.

The app can be locked with your fingerprint on a mobile device, which keeps your target language musings nice and private.

Journey

Journey offers the same broad features as Day One, but is available on Windows and Android platforms, too. User can add multiple photos and video to entries, which could be put to great use when journaling about your linguistic adventures.

Both Day One and Journey are excellent apps for journaling, with little to separate them. Both are free to download, with premium features unlocked with in-app purchases. Journey uses Google drive to sync its data, which some users might prefer over the proprietary sync service that Day One now uses.

Other text editing software

Of course, you don’t need to use a dedicated journaling app to start documenting your life in the target language. My first digital journal in a foreign language was simply an iOS Pages document. I just added a little Russian to it each day, and soon it had grown to the size of a short story!

These come with their own benefits, too. While the layout is much more general compared to a dedicated journaling app, you also have the freedom to design your own diary format. Additionally, Word Processing apps include more heavy-duty features of interest to linguists, such as spell-checking dictionaries in a range of languages.

There is no shortage of text editing programs to try out your journaling in. What’s more, many of them are free! For instance, Google Docs offers a solid, cross-platform option for no cost at all. As well as the browser-based web app, it is also available as a handy Android or iOS app. Then, of course, is the behemoth of Word Processing, Microsoft Word, also available across a whole range of platforms and pricing plans, from free to paid.

Specialist writing software

Perhaps you feel like something with just a little more creative nudge than the big, bold industry standards. You are in luck again; there is a burgeoning industry in apps designed to encourage and support creative writing.

They are often no-frills, but organised to make writing as simple a process as possible. For newbie diarists and budding authors taking their first steps, that could make the difference between getting into it, or getting overwhelmed and giving up.

Some of the best include:

On the one hand, these kinds of app tend to go off the beaten track of Word Processing as you know it. However, the pay-off is billed as greater support for the creative writing process.

Under lock and key

One last word of warning… Do be careful where you leave that diary. There is nothing like a burning motive to aid comprehension in a foreign language. And needing to know what somebody wrote about you can turn even the most linguaphobic in our midst into eager, urgent learners!

What are you waiting for? Happy journaling!