Parallel text style learning, like Assimil courses, can be a great way to improve your fluency.

DIY Assimil : Parallel Text Learning with ChatGPT

Assimil language learning books are hugely popular in our polyglot community. And for good reason – many of us learn really effectively with its parallel text method.

They’re especially userful when the base language is another of our stronger languages, adding an element of triangulation. I learned a heap of Greek vocabulary from the French edition Le Grec sans Peine, at the same time as strengthening my (ever slightly wobbly) French.

Now, Assimil is already available in a great range of language pairs. But it’s not always a perfect fit. For example, some editions are more up-to-date than others. More off-the-beaten-track languages still aren’t available. And at times, you can’t find the right base language – no use learning Breton through French, if you don’t have any French.

Enter ChatGPT (or your alternative LLM of choiceBing also does a great job of these!).

DIY Assimil Prompting

Copy and paste this into your AI chat, changing the language (top), translation language (middle) and topic (bottom) to suit.

You are an expert creator of language learning resources. I want to create some text-based learning units for beginner Malay learners (level A0/A1 on the CEFR scale). The units follow the parallel text approach of the well-known Assimil language learning books.

Each unit has a text in the target language (about 250 words) on a specific vocabulary topic. It should be narrative, talking about how the topic relates to an everyday person. It should be divided into logical paragraphs. After each paragraph, there is an English translation of that paragraph in italics.

The text should be written in very clear, simple language. The language must read like a native speaker wrote it, and be error-free and natural-sounding. Source the info for the text from target language resources online, making it as up-to-date and authentic as possible. It should be completely original and not copied or lifted from any other source directly.

After the text, there is a glossary list of the key topic words from the text, sorted alphabetically and grouped by parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs etc.).

Are you ready to create some content? The first topic is: Mobile Technology

This prompt creates a prose-based parallel text unit. However, if you prefer dialogue-style texts, simply change the second paragraph of the prompt:

Each unit has a humorous dialogue in the target language (about 20 lines) on a specific vocabulary topic. The dialogue should relate the topic to everyday speakers through colloquial, idiomatic language.

The prompt works a treat in both ChatGPT Plus (paid) and Microsoft Bing (free). I also got very useable results in the free version of ChatGPT and Claude 2. It works so well as the focus is purely on what LLMs do best: spooling off creative text.

How Do I Use Them?

So, with your shiny, new Assimil-style units spooled off, what do you do with them?

Personally, I like to copy and paste the output into the notes app on my phone. That way, they make nice potted units to browse through when I have some spare moments on the bus or train. They’re equally handy copy-pasted into PDF documents that you can annotate on your phone or tablet.

Parallel text for Malay language learning created by AI

Parallel text in Malay and English created by AI

In terms of real-world use, the self-contained, chatty texts typically created make perfect material for the islands approach to improving spoken fluency. Create some units in topics that are likely to come up in conversation. Then, spend some time memorising the phrases by heart. You’ll be able to draw on them whenever you need in real-life conversation.

Enjoy prompts like these? Check out my book AI for Language Learners, which lists even more fun ways to get results without paying hefty course book price tags!

An illustration of a robot taking a picture of a book page, to illustrate AI image analysis in the context of language learning course books.

AI Image Analysis for Language Learners : Your Course Book Assistant!

Image upload and analysis is one of the most game-changing recent additions to AI platforms. Combined with a knack for text recognition, it’s possibly one of the most revolutionary for language (and other!) learners, too.

In short, if it’s on a page, you can now get it into AI and do things with it. Because of this. image analysis has huge potential for extending, and breathing new life into printed materials, producing the very best synthesis of old and new tech.

A screenshot of AI chat in the Bing App, with an arrow showing the 'upload an image' function.

The image upload icon in the Bing app.

At its very simplest, it’s a handy summary and explanation tool. Just upload your page image, and prompt:

Analyse this page from my [LANGUAGE] course book. Summarise it in a few short bullet points I can use for revision.

Useful in its own right. But with some extra prompt magic, you can produce individually tailored support material on the fly – material that will help you to delve really deeply into those language learning texts, making it work for you.

Let’s see what it can do for starters!

Working with Vocab Lists

Vocab in Context

Take the most conventional form of book-based, language learning data. Most course books have vocabulary lists and glossaries of words in the current chapter top. But beyond the dialogues or passages they are attached to, there’s rarely any other in context use of them.

Personally, I find it really helpful to see individual items embedded in sentence examples as an aide memoire. I usually seek them out in mass sentence banks and other manual-search online resources.

Even easier with AI:

Analyse this entire page from my [LANGUAGE] course book, noting all of the vocabulary items internally. Then, create a useful, practical sentence using each and every item. The sentences should relate to real-world contexts where possible. Make sure you include every single entry – don’t leave any out. Constantly double-check that the language is natural-sounding and grammatically correct. Output them in table format listing the word, your sentence and an English translation of that sentence.

ChatGPT Plus analysing a page of Swedish vocabulary.

ChatGPT Plus analysing a page of Swedish vocabulary.

ChatGPT Plus analysing a page of Swedish vocabulary.

The trick here is the analyse the entire page instruction. LLM / AI platforms tend to take shortcuts when working with lists, sometimes skipping list items. Adding this stipulation is great at keeping it on track!

Rationalising Vocab Lists

You can also sort such material in an order that works better for you. For instance, I work best with vocab when I classify it first, be that by parts of speech, topic or otherwise. AI makes light work of it:

This is the material I’m currently studying in [LANGUAGE]. First, analyse the entire page, noting all of the vocabulary items listed. Then, rewrite that list, grouping the items by their grammatical part of speech and in alphabetical order. Where the word isn’t in its simple dictionary form, provide that too. Include any entries you couldn’t categorise at the end. Double-check throughout the process that a) you haven’t left out any items, and b) that your categorisation of each item is correct. If you detect errors, start again.

ChatGPT Plus analysing a page of Swahili vocabulary to create model sentences for context.

Microsoft Bing analysing a page of Swahili vocabulary to create model sentences for context.

Microsoft Bing analysing a page of Swahili vocabulary to create model sentences for context.

You can also combine this with the AI Anki decks trick to really digitise those paper lists.

AI Translation Exercises

Now, how about some methods for actively working with vocab? Personally, I’m a  big fan of the translation method. Now I know this isn’t everybody’s cup of tea (it’s one thing that turns some off Duo) but if it works for you, you can produce a raft of exercises in seconds:

Here’s a page from my [LANGUAGE] course book. Analyse the entire page, noting all vocabulary items internally. Then, create a set of 20 practical, useful sentences using this vocabulary in context. Make them relevant to real-world, current affairs contexts where possible. Present half of these sentences in English and half in the target language for me to translate for practice. Add a key for any extra words you used that aren’t included in the list, as support. Add the translations of all sentences at the end as an answer key.

ChatGPT Plus analysing a page of Hebrew vocabulary to create translation exercises.

Bing analysing a page of Hebrew vocabulary to create translation exercises.

AI Exercises

You can also extend course book pages with worksheet-style practice exercises. Here’s a prompt that should produce a diverse set of activities in an output perfect for copy-pasting into a note, or PDF, to pore through on the move:

Here’s a page from my [LANGUAGE] course book. First, analyse the entire page, noting all vocabulary items, sentence frames and grammatical structures internally. Then, create a set of worksheet-style activities for me to practise using that material. Vary the activity types, including exercises like gap-fill / cloze, matching and translation. Add an answer key to all exercises at the end.

You might even like to try a more dynamic approach with this paper-to-exercise technique. The following prompt should set up a turn-based game (my favourite kind!) that recycles chapter vocab in live conversation:

Here’s a page from my [LANGUAGE] course book. First, analyse the entire page, noting all vocabulary items, sentence frames and grammatical structures internally. Then, let’s have a conversational, turn-based activity using the material. Present me, turn by turn, with a sentence in the target language using the vocabulary. I have to provide the missing word. Don’t give me any clues or model answers until I’ve made my response each turn!

Admittedly, turn-based language gaming worked better in Bing before recent updates forced it to focus solely on being a fancy search engine. If it does stray, just remind it that you’re playing a vocabulary game!

Choose Your Platform!

All these prompts have one thing in common: they play to the power of AI to take information and display it in different ways. That’s gold for learners, as the human brain learns best when presented with material in multiple, not monotonous formats. For one thing, this helps beat the context trap of repetitious learning. Recycling vocab in as many ways as possible is key to remembering it in unlimited, unpredictable future situations.

Tech-wise, you’ll see that I’ve used Bing in most of these examples. It’s an excellent place to start if you’re new to AI yourself, not leave because it’s accessible, user-friendly and completely free! Additionally, the Bing app allows you to snap a book page easily with your phone camera. And Bing’s internet connectivity out-of-the-box gives it more breadth and up-to-the-minute relevance when creating your materials.

That said, you can use these prompts with any platform that allows image uploads. ChatGPT, for instance, has the added bonus of multiple uploads – ie., pages – so you can process a larger chunk of chapter in one go.

Whichever platform you choose, the most important piece of advice remains the same: don’t just stick with these potted prompts. Instead, experiment constantly to find what works for you, building up your own prompt library to copy-paste. AI can, and should, be an incredibly personalised experience. Good luck making it your own!

Have you used AI image analysis in your learning? Let us know your own tips and tricks in the comments!

A tray of medals for the IBSA Games 2023 Tennis. Volunteering at international events is a great way to practise your languages!

Volunteering for Team Languages

I almost didn’t make my deadline (albeit self-imposed) for today’s post. I’ve spent a week volunteering with V.I. tennis at the IBSA Games in Birmingham, and I’ve only just packed up my uniform for the last time as the sun is setting on Edgbaston Priory.

It’s been six days of sweaty, hard and sometimes challenging work, but six unforgettable days of incredible experiences too. Not least of those is the great opportunity to use foreign languages – both my stronger, weaker and almost non-existent ones (my three words of Lithuanian, I’m looking at you). The IBSA Games being together athletes from over 70 countries, so it’s not hard to find someone, somewhere, who speaks something you know.

International events are such a perfect match for linguistically-minded volunteers. And that’s not just the social butterflies amongst us. Meeting, speaking and helping is golden experience for anyone fighting (as I do) with a natural shyness. It offers a good level of self-challenge, but with the safety net of structured interaction in short, manageable bursts. I call it people practice, and it’s worked wonders for my own particular flavour of social awkwardness!

It’s also an opportunity to enjoy the serendipity of polyglot opportunities. Nothing ‘in the wild’ is ever predictable, and that can throw language learners off when we throw ourselves deliberately, and often over-expectantly, into a single target language setting. On an international volunteering gig, you simply don’t know what will come your way. It might be your favourite language; it could be one you haven’t touched for years, and never thought you’d use again. It’s a case of let the opportunity come to you – and you’ll be nimbler of conversation for it. Personally, I never expected to speak as much Polish as I did this week.

If you at all curious to try it out, check out the NCVO or equivalent in your country. Also, keep an ear to the ground for big events happening locally. The best leads are often by simple word of mouth.

Volunteering is massively rewarding, in so many ways. It really is the ultimate in giving something of yourself in order to grow, as a linguist – and otherwise.

The Flag of Sweden, the Scandinavian country where Swedish is spoken. Image from

The Great Norwegian – Swedish Mismatch Game

If you’ve been following my recent posts, you’ll know I’ve embarked upon a new journey of late. It’s a strange, yet also strangely familiar one. I’ve skipped across the Norwegian frontier and am learning Swedish.

Learning a language so closely related to one you already speak is a very particular kind of language learning. Uniquely, you’re not starting from scratch. In fact, you most likely already have a decent degree of passive comprehension, either in reading, listening, or both. It’s what made annual Melfest viewing so much more rewarding, despite never having studied a jot of Swedish formally!

Because of that passive comprehension, though, beginners’ resources are much less useful when you hop across to sibling languages. For one thing, they’re boring; you feel like you already know the basics, as everything is so familiar. Instead of step-by-step textbooks, a better tactic is systematic exposure to higher-level media like podcasts, TV shows and current affairs apps, with a mindful eye on learning the features that distinguish the two languages.

Swedish ≠ NOrwegian in Disguise

Naively, I thought that might be almost entirely tonal, before I started out on my language family hopping. But no – Swedish isn’t just Norwegian with a cutesy accent. There are a lot more vocabulary differences than I’d expected.

Sometimes these are due to borrowing from different sources. Swedish, once the language of an expansive European great power, might have a Middle German loan (like fråga, question) where Norwegian has a North Germanic root (spørsmål). Other times, it’s Swedish that preserves the Norse root (bjuda, invite), while Norwegian has an international interloper (invitere). And then there are times they both go native in different ways (Swedish jämföra and Norwegian sammenligne, to compare).

In any case, my Swedish vocab strategy is to audit the mismatches I find, rather than make a record of all the vocabulary I come across. It’s fascinating watching it come together, like a tale of two siblings who were thick as thieves before going their separate ways. You can see the results so far below, a rather random hotchpotch of items I’ve spotted my recent listening and reading. It’s still early days, and it’s impossible ever to make this exhaustive, of course.

But that said, I hope other double-Scandi learners find it interesting and/or useful!

The Great Norwegian – Swedish Mismatch List


🇳🇴 🇸🇪 🇬🇧
en avis en tidning a newspaper
en bedrift, et selskap ett företag, ett bolag a company
en edderkopp en spindel a spider
en flamme en låga a flame
en forskjell en skillnad a difference
en lommebok en plånbok a wallet
lykke, flaks tur (good) luck
oppførsel beteende behaviour
ei pute en kudde a pillow
et samfunn ett samhälle a society
en sang en låt a song
en sky ett moln a cloud
en ting en sak a thing
en ulv en varg a wolf
en utfordring en utmaning a challenge


🇳🇴 🇸🇪 🇬🇧
bruke använda use
finde hitta find
fortelle berätta tell
invitere bjuda invite
like gilla, tycker om like
pleie å gjøre bruka göra to usually do
sammenligne jämföra compare
snakke prata, tala speak, talk
spise äta eat
stole på lita på rely on
unngå undvika avoid


🇳🇴 🇸🇪 🇬🇧
alle allihop everyone
cirka ungefær approximately, about
den eneste den enda the only one
en om gangen en i taget one at a time
en slags … en sorters … a kind of …
fordi eftersom, för att because
… igjen … kvar … left (over)
klar redo ready
nettopp (gjort) precis (gjort) just (done)
nå for tiden numera these days
selvsagt, åpenbart självklart obviously
skuffet besviken disappointed

Are there any biggies you’d add to this nascent list? Please share in the comments!

The Flag of Sweden, the Scandinavian country where Swedish is spoken. Image from

Scandinavian Swapshop : Switching Teams Late in the Game?

I always think Scandinavian languages are like football teams. You pick one and you stick with it.

It was Norwegian that I plucked out of the polyglot hat very early on. Admittedly, as with many of those early language choices, it was my Eurovision favourites that led the way. I positively lapped up Norway’s entries in the 90s, so resolved to learn as much as I possibly could about the country and language (or languages, as I soon found out).

Scandinavian Value for Money

The thing is, with a Scandi lang, you get bang for your buck. First-language speakers of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish grow up with this in mind. They readily understand each other’s languages – to varying degrees – and consume media from each other’s countries with few issues.

As a second-language speaker, you too can gain access to that value for money party to some extent. Learning Norwegian equips you with an ability to read Danish and Swedish with little difficulty, and, I soon found, to follow the gist to the most animated of Melodifestivalen presenters. You can even fake speaking one of the other languages semi-successfully by adjusting your accent and tone. It’s like supporting your team, but nipping over to see a rival team’s games now and again.

But this year, of course, Sweden went and won Eurovision (again). And if there’s anything that makes me want to learn a new language ‘properly’, it’s the thought of visiting a country to attend said Eurovision. How hard can it be, I thought? Norwegian and Swedish are so similar, it’s just a case of tweaking here and there.

Little Difference, Big Difference?

Ohhhh, no. I soon realised that it’s a slippery slope to assume any of the Scandilangs line up with each other perfectly. As I delve into formal Swedish study for the first time, I’m learning how unintentionally hilarious that assumption could be. For instance, the Norwegian word ful can mean clever or sly. Don’t go calling anyone in Sweden that, though. There, it means ugly.

Other mismatches are perhaps less likely to get you into actual trouble, but will still give you away as a blagger, not a speaker. You’ll need to remember that a newspaper is a tidning, not an avis, for example. You don’t like (like) and huske (remember) but rather tycka om and komma ihåg, using phrasal constructions that Swedish seems so much more partial to than Norwegian. And before you cry wolf, be aware that it’s a varg, not an ulv (incidentally, Swedish ditched the latter due to superstition, a fascinating phenomenon known as taboo replacement).

In any case, having a real go at Swedish is opening my eyes to how different the languages are from each other, and challenging the flawed assumption of equivalency. Maybe soon, I’ll be singing along to those Melfest favourites in the original language, and not my best faux Swewegian.

I’m still Team Norway – but might have sneakily bought a Sweden scarf to whip out at the right moment now and again too.

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

Short Stories… in ChatGPT

It’s no secret – reading fiction is a favourite strategy of polyglot learners. That’s more than simply reading Harry Potter novels in translation. There’s a whole market sector that revolves around non-native short stories, and I’m not alone in enjoying the excellent Short Stories In… or Penguin Parallel Texts series to practise my languages.

But what if we could source those stories on demand… and for free?

Unless you’ve been hiding for the past three months, you’ll know where I’m going with this. ChatGPT, the natural language processor, has already made ripples in the fan fiction arena. And, it turns out, it has a knack for performing the same feat multilingually, and tailored to your exact needs.

The power of it becomes apparent when you ask it to write you a story. Because you can tailor that story precisely to your own interests. Personal interest, of course, is a holy grail with language learning motivation. And ChatGPT is like your own private author, ready to fit original content to exactly what you like.

I started where I started – literally, with languages – and requested a German short story about Eurovision. What else? The results were pretty impressive.

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

The only thing is, it’s a bit wordy for my (hypothetical) class of German students. So I ask ChatGPT to tailor it to a specific level:

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

Tailoring the story to a specific level.

Brilliant – we’re getting something we can turn into a learning resource now. But I’d love my students to focus on more descriptive adjectives to improve their writing. Can we turn this into a better model?

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

Tweaking the output with specific criteria.

Again, ChatGPT turns up the goods! The German is sound, and the story is a fun little read. But what about making this a polyglot resource, parallel resource, so anyone learning more than one language can keep their learning in sync? No problem:

ChatGPT writing a short story in French.

Translation into French.

Impressive. It has no issue with any of what you’d call the mainstream languages. I tried it in all of the languages I have some proficiency in, and it even churns out decent Greek and Polish. I’m not yet fluent enough in Scottish Gaelic to check this properly, but it seemed the only one that was a bit iffy, despite giving it a good go:

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

A translation into Scottish Gaelic.

Finally, let’s throw in a short summary version we can use as revision materials, or an item description:

ChatGPT writing a short story in French.

A short summary of the story in French.

Obviously, this all comes with the caveat that it needs careful checking before use as an accurate resource. But the initial performance is pretty spectacular, to be honest. As the model is tweaked and improved, it’s not hard to imagine this becoming a cornerstone of personal resource creation for learners of languages, as well as everything else.

The movement of atoms. The morpheme could be called the atom of language. Image from

Houston, We Have A Morpheme Problem

It was in Greek class that I realised it. I have a morpheme problem.

Yes, those pesky little indivisible chunks of languagey-ness are causing me grief. The exact nature of that grief is a regular mixing up of pronouns and possessives with s- (you) and t- (him/his/her), to the amusement of my teacher.

Πού είναι ο μπαμπάς του… ΣΟΥ; Pou íne o babás tou… SOU?
Where is his… YOUR dad?

The source? Probably the romance languages I’ve learned, where the correspondence is reversed. French has ton (your) and son (his/her), for example, while Spanish has tu and su. The romance you/he/she attachment to those tiny little chunks has reasserted itself temporarily (I hope) to wreak happy havoc.

Yes, interference is real, and it’s not just about whole words – it’s a morpheme thing, too.

Morpheme Madness

In reality, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s a natural by-product of a brain built for pattern-spotting, and studies of bilingual infants show that we’re well-equipped to remedy it in the natural course. I can talk about it now because I realised I was doing it, and self-corrected along the way.

But what else can I do about in the immediate term?

Much of it is to do with voice, at least for me. Cultivating distinct voices for each language you learn is a great way to compartmentalise and separate. But unless you’re a gifted impressionist, your repertoire might be limited, and you might have to double up. I realised my Greek voice was suspiciously like my Spanish one., all faux-masterful and brooding. No doubt a bit of clowning around and trying new accents on might help there.

But it’s an ideal case for mass-sentence training too, which I’d become lax with of late. Glossika has a ton of sentences including those little σου and του, and an extra five or ten minutes of training a day will – I hope – re-cement the little imps into my Hellenic pathways.

Have you noticed interference between your languages at the morpheme level? What are your strategies for re-enforcing separation? Let us know in the comments!

The Study of Language by George Yule. Eighth Edition, Cambridge University Press.

The Study of Language, 8th Edition [Review]

New year, new books. Well, we have to live by some adage don’t we? And perhaps it’s the time of year, but shiny new tomes in the postbox do have their appeal. Appropriately, this week’s doormat delight was George Yule‘s essential Linguistics primer The Study of Language, refreshed and updated in its 8th iteration.

It’s a text with some measure of nostalgia for me, appearing on a preliminary reader list ahead of my own MSc. And it has doubtless done so for many other courses, having become something of a modern classic; it offers a solid and systematic overview of all branches of the field, from historical linguistics to second language acquisition. If your university offers a course on it, there’s probably an introductory chapter on it in The Study of Language. It’s as comprehensive as it is reliable.

An Interactive Text

It’s been a good two years since the last edition, so what’s changed? One key enhancement is a considerable expansion of the end-of-unit study questions and tasks. It’s something that always made the volume perfect for working in tandem with programme instructors, now even more so. Activities range from simple questions to more exploratory project-based tasks, providing ample independent learning opportunities.

An example from one of the sections of study questions in The Study of Language by George Yule (8th Edition, Cambridge University Press).

Extensive study questions cap each of the concise, snappy chapters.

There is additional online support on the Cambridge website, too, which has seen a refresh along with the core text. This includes a substantial, 152-page PDF study guide for students, adding a good deal of value to the course.

Keeping It Current

The commitment of Cambridge University Press to keeping this key text up-to-date is impressive. Several of the chapters have gone through major rewrites to reflect current research. This is immediately evident in the further reading lists, replete with pointers to fresh, new sources.

The chapter on Second Language Acquisition is a case in point. Clearly it’s quite a dear topic to my own heart, and (predictably) one of my first stop-offs. But even I spotted some interesting new references to follow up in the mix, in the form of recent papers and monographs. It’s great to see the last couple of years represented in the lists of publications like this, underscoring the fact that this is a bang up-to-date edition.

The Study of Language is a broad, engaging and highly readable introduction to language sciences. It equips the reader with a robust roadmap to ensure they aren’t overwhelmed by unfamiliar buzzwords and jargon on starting out on a formal Linguistics course. This eighth edition is a very welcome continuation of that, ensuring that students get the very best and most up-to-date start possible.

Polyglotised Products

I keep coming across what you might call polyglotised products lately. You know the kind of thing: emblazoned with motivational or humorous snippets in a number of languages, usually achingly corny and twee, and all too often containing a few errors to create some associated unintended comedy. From the welcome to… artwork at airports to that multilingual Christmas cross-stitch that comes out once a year, you can find multilingual cheesiness in all sorts of places.

As naff as they can be, there is something snugly positive about these chintzy embellishments. For the wistful polyglots, they’re a nod to the world beyond. For the philosophical, they acknowledge that despite language differences, humans tend to express the same kinds of everyday thoughts the world over. And for the rest of us, they’re just plain fun. I think they deserve to be celebrated whenever we see them in our otherwise blandly monolingual societies.

Corny polyglot fun

I spotted a corker of one recently: a polyglot ashtray, sitting incongruously outside a café pub in the city centre. It’s all the sweeter for the fact that it looks homemade, and well-loved, judging by the wear around the edges. There’s that folk irony there too, a hint of sarcasm, with the – ahem – hilarious decision to adorn an ashtray with “I will quit tomorrow”. Firmly in the “my other car’s a Lamborghini” tradition. Just glorious.

In any case, these things bring a dash of light-hearted silliness to a sometimes dark world, not to mention a smile to the face of those that understand a snatch of their target language in them.

Three polyglot cheers for cheese!

Have you come across any nice specimens on your travels? What are your favourites? Let us know in the comments!

Close-up of daydreaming eye, full of wistfulness. Image from

The Power of Wistfulness : Misty-Eyed Language Learning

Sometimes, a distant goal can exert a greater pull than an immediate one. It’s all down to the mysterious power of wistfulness.

I’ve been learning Gaelic for a few years now. It’s always been at a fairly steady, casual pace, never rushed or urgent. That’s probably because it’s always felt like a sociable endeavour rather than an academic one; classes and chat clubs are a chance to catch up with friends as much as learn a language.

It’s when I’m away from that environment that the nature of that changes dramatically. And it’s particularly strong when I’m very far away.

I clocked it this week, at the tail-end of the post-August grind-back-into-gear. For many of us, there’s been a big break from classes over summer, and Gaelic was no exception out of term-time. Chat groups have been quiet too, what with folk off on their hols and such like. That’s a whole month and beyond without any structured language learning.

The result? I’ve started kicking off each day with “Alexa, play BBC Radio nan Gàidheal“. I’ve plunged into some proper reading at last, giving a new translation of Animal Farm a go (even though it’s a wee bit tough for my level). BBC Alba is my current go-to on iPlayer of an evening. And I’ve been dipping into an Old Irish primer to fill in the historical gaps. Distance has been like a lightning rod to my motivation!

The Power of Wistfulness

What’s happened? Well, I’d call it the power of wistfulness. When something treasured or important becomes distant, people tend to grow wistful and nostalgic for it. And that, in turn, multiplies the joy that comes from immersing yourself in it, from revelling in it, even, as a source of comfort. It explains in part why a (formal) learning break can sometimes work wonders.

It’s similar to the effect you get after coming back from a trip to your target language country. You just know you’ll get a mini boost to your learning for a good few weeks after your return. It’s because absence really can make the heart grow fonder, as you crave anything that restores that warm connection. There’s almost an irony there, of course; after returning from a trip, I’ll sometimes study the language more than in the lead-up to it!

So, here I am, listening to solemn choral music on Gaelic radio, feeling all sorts of longing for roves around the Scottish Highlands. Twee, I know, and I’m sure I’ll return to lazy ways when the calendar ramps up again. But who’s complaining when it’s driving some progress? I’ve probably immersed myself more in past couple of weeks than I have since I started Gaelic. And that morning radio in the target language is fast becoming a healthy language-learning habit I hope to continue.

The power of wistfulness can do funny things.