Headphones - great for listening to a podcast or ten!

Honest Podcast Pruning

Foreign language podcast episodes are fantastic language learning tools. But if you’re anything like me, you end up following far too many programmes to manage.

It’s great, of course, to have lots of choice. But what’s not so great is to get resource overwhelm when you have too many to count. Where to start?

It became pretty much do or die with my podcast list lately. I felt bogged down when I checked my podcast app. It seemed like there were just too many to catch up on. The crux of it: I just wasn’t listening to them any more.

Some pruning was in order.

Podcast Pruning

There’s a little self-honesty strategy you can try to prune your podcasts. Most podcast programmes have a ‘latest podcast’ list, which lists all episodes in order of recency. In iOS it looks like this:

A screenshot of podcasts listed by decency in iOS

The latest podcasts view on iOS

Now, go to play them from the top. No cheating. For each one, if your reaction is a reluctant, groaning must I? or can I just skip this one?, then your heart is probably not really in it. Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast acid test. There may be times when we are just not in the mood. But in my experience, that reeeeeally? wince is generally a sign that your interest isn’t fully committed.

So if our hearts aren’t really in it, what are these podcasts doing on our lists in the first place?

Well, it comes down to what we think we should be doing and what we want to be doing. There’s quite normative – even moralistic – sense of what ‘worthwhile’ language learning content is. That’s skewed by lots of outside influences that discount our personal interests. And, with learning, an invested, personal interest is key. There’s little point bashing your head against a brick wall with unmotivating content. Always ask will this content spark my interest beyond language learning?

So, the next time you find yourself avoiding your podcast app, or staring, uninspired, at a list of countless foreign language podcasts you have no desire to plough through, consider an honest podcast pruning!

A Capsule Language Learning Library?

Sometimes, it feels like I’m permanently on the road. With family, friends and work spread out across the country,  I travel a lot. Anything that makes that easier is a win in my book, so I’m all for minimalism and streamlining. Lately, I’ve been taken by the idea of the ultra-simple capsule wardrobeit worked for Einstein, Steve Jobs, and a host of others, after all – and in that spirit, I’ve been trying to pare down my togs to a few essentials that I can fit into a travel bag.

But if we can do that with our clothes and feel instantly lighter, why not try it with other things… like our language learning materials, for instance?

Now don’t you worry. I haven’t decided to donate all my language books to charitable causes just yet. But the idea strikes me as a decent one for the language learning traveller: deciding on a core set of books that provide the max learning learning on the go, but don’t weigh down your carry-on. (Obviously a couple for each language project, assuming you just focus on one per trip – I’m not talking polyglot minimalism here, just resource minimalism! )

In any case, it’s a fun exercise to try with your (probable, if you anything like me) heaps of books. As with a capsule wardrobe, it’s good to set a limit on the number of pieces. Because books are a bit heavier and (gulp – forgive me saying this – marginally less essential) than clothes, I think two (only two?!) is a good number to play the game. A good course book and a decent reference volume go pretty well together, I think.

Here are some of my attempts, limiting myself to two (really only two?!) books per language:

Gaelic

You can’t beat a Colloquial for in-depth language tuition. I find they always double as reference works too, so you have a double whammy right there. My other choice is quite a grammar-heavy look at Gaelic verbs, but with lots of side references to other aspects of the language too. Every time I dip into it, I come across something new. Solid.

German

Less of the learning material, more of the reference here, with German being my second language and strongest foreign language. Hammer’s Grammar is the definitive reference on all things Deutsch, and Wort für Wort has kept me in advanced conversation topics since I did my German A-level in the last century.

Greek

Who amongst us doesn’t love a good Routledge? I have a special soft spot for the Essential Grammar series, since they’re almost as comprehensive as the, ahem, Comprehensive series, but a bit less overwhelming. Twin that with a Teach Yourself (and you know I love me a Teach Yourself), and we’re ready for that trip to the islands.

Handy bonus: all of the Teach Yourself audio is available online in the TY library app, too. Or, if you have a Kindle, you can get the book and the audio in a single format.

Polish

Never one to shy away from being predictable, I paired up my Polish outfit to match my Greek one. Well, if it works…

Ready, steady… Capsule!

So there you go. Four of my essential Summer outfits.

Apart from the fun element of challenge to it, capsuling your books makes you think hard about what you already have. It  helps you to take stock of your materials. and decide what your core strategy is. And it keeps you ready to run and learn – whether that’s on holiday, or up the road for some study time in the library!

Which textbooks are your hero items? What would make your desert island cut? Let us know in the comments!

Pop linguistics books

Pop Linguistics Books for Prep or Pleasure

I fulfilled a long-time promise to myself in 2020. I went back to university to do the linguistics masters I never had the chance to do years ago. It’s been a journey (and still is!).

That said, as a long-time language nerd, I wasn’t going in completely blind. Like most linguaphiles, I love reading about languages, as well as learning them. Over the years, I’ve happened across a few pop linguistics titles that prepared the ground (little did I know then) for my return to uni. They’re accessible, fun reads, and nobody needs a formal linguistics background to enjoy them. Just a healthy interest will do. And whether or not you plan to take the same step as I did, they’ll all get you thinking about how languages work, and change, in whole new ways.

Without further ado, here are a few of my favourite pop ling books.

Dying Words

Nicholas Evans

Nicholas Evans is an Australian linguist specialising in endangered languages. Dying Words is first and foremost his empassioned cry to recognise the value of every language to the library of human knowledge. 

To drive the point home, he builds his arguments on solid research and extensive field experience; his expertise on Australian languages is worth the price of the book alone.

But it’s all written so accessibly, with each technical term or methodological aspect so carefully explained, that the book doubles as a kind of gentle introduction to historical linguistics. Linguistics primer gold.

The Unfolding of Language

Guy Deutscher

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher - one of my top recommended linguistics books

The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher

This book is pretty special to me. It was the one that first got me thinking language change is cool!

In it, Israeli linguist Guy Deutscher tells the most fascinating stories about how words and grammar develop. The most lasting insight from this, for me, was that of the great churn of language change. It’s truly never-ending, as the results of yesterday’s changes provide the material for tomorrow’s. It’s quite the revelation how French has iterated and iterated from Latin hodie (today) to aujourd’hui – tautologically, on the day of this day.

If you like this one, it’s also worth checking out his Through the Language Glass.

The First Word

Christine Kenneally

Author Christine Kenneally takes perhaps the most speculative of linguistics topics – the evolution of language – and provides an exciting and compelling tour of scholarship in the field. A trained linguist herself, she now works as a journalist, and the combination of the two makes this a compelling pleasure to read. Even if you find the concept of language evolution too woolly and conjectural, the book is fantastic for simply prompting thoughts on what language is.

The Adventure of English

Melvyn Bragg

Despite being the only book on this list by a non-linguist (at least professionally), the author of The Adventure of English is nonetheless a sharp tool and very well informed – of course, none other than the legendary broadcaster and cultural commentator Melvyn Bragg. His book on the history of the English language, and the emergence of many different global Englishes, made a decent splash in the right circles, in any case. I’ve seen it recommended as pre-reading for a few different English linguistics courses, including a former Open Uni module. As you’d expect from a broadcast journalist, it’s pacy and entertaining – so much so that you might well finish it in a couple of sittings.

Books for Prep or Pleasure

So there you go – a handful of tips for some light linguistics reading. That goes for anyone interested in the field, whether for personal interest or uni prep. Also note that there’s not a Language Instinct in sight, although I do love that one, too. It’s just a bit too obvious as it remains ubiquitously recommended here, there and everywhere!

None of these are really academic texts, of course. Most are written in that chipper, journalistic style familiar from that close cousin to the field, pop science. But for that reason, they’re all a bit of a joy to read. I hope you enjoy them too.

The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

Just for the sake of completion: my (now very battered) copy of The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker

 

Teach Yourself enhanced ebooks plus audio for Kindle

Teach Yourself Enhanced eBooks : Bargains Hiding in Plain Sight

I had a bit of Amazon credit to spend this week (from TopCashBack, no less), so I decided to treat myself to a couple of Kindle books I’d had my eye on for a while: the enhanced ebook + audio editions of a couple of Teach Yourself Complete titles.

As Greek and Polish seem to have lodged themselves firmly in my heart as big life language projects (did I choose them, or did they choose me?), it seemed only right to install both of them on my device. Although they’re hardly brand new editions, the ebook + audio range being available since the early 2010s, they’re my first in that format. They’re cheap, too – most are just £3.99 right now, with the odd one, like Cantonese, even cheaper.

Of course, I already have both of these books (in several versions, vintage and otherwise, as you’ll know if you’ve been following my recent compulsion!). But even though I’ve completed them both in other guises, I still love these titles for revision. I’m also stoked by the idea of a one-stop-shop mobile library – a single place for all that content, with no need for app-switching for listening material.

Teach Yourself enhanced ebooks plus audio for Kindle

Teach Yourself Complete Greek and Complete Polish on my Kindle app

Teach Yourself… To Be Compatible?

Confession: I almost didn’t bother with them at all.

The reason was the not insignificant number of negative reviews left for those products on Amazon. The big bad mark against them was the charge of incompatibility, particularly the audio. A number of users frustratedly left their one-star slaps-in-the-face stating that the audio simply didn’t work on their devices.

Thankfully, it seems like an issue on older Kindles, rather than the content itself. I’ve had no problems at all running them on the Kindle app for iOS on my two-year-old iPad. Audio prompts appear as little speaker icons, and a mini player pops up at the bottom of the screen when you tap them. There is full scrub / pause functionality too, so you don’t have to listen to the whole thing from start to finish.

Teach Yourself… to Read Non-Latin Scripts?

That said, there was another frequent review gripe that put me off plumping for them even more than the potential audio issues. Several users mentioned a lack of support for non-Latin characters in the dialogues. Instead of letter characters, some only saw blank boxes – clearly a font fail. Now that would be a deal-breaker for languages like Greek, Hindi and Russian!

Again, it seems to be a case of device support, not product support. Greek characters display perfectly on Kindle for iPad. Not only that, but they’ve used a really nice, readable font for the Greek.

If there’s anything to be said in the way of constructive criticism, it’s just a question of layout. Sometimes, vocab lists can look cramped, for instance, although that’s easily fixed by rotating to landscape. Elsewhere, some exercise tables are obviously images rather than text, with instructions to ‘fill in’ despite not being editable (as the image above illustrates). Nonetheless, they’re tiny quibbles given the convenience of the format.

If In Doubt…

All in all, my experience with the Teach Yourself Complete ebooks has been tiptop. It all goes to show that you can’t always trust reviews out of context.

If in doubt, though, you do have one tool at your disposal for a definitive answer on compatibility: the free sample. There are free samples – usually just the first chapter or so – available for all Amazon Kindle books. I made sure to download both the Greek and Polish samples above before spending my hard-earned (yet still bargainous) £3.99.

If you want trusty Teach Yourself content on your devices, these are a really good punt. They’re not available in all the Teach Yourself Complete languages, but most of the major learning languages are available (French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese, for starters).

A retro cassette tape. Image from freeimages.com

Retro Corner : De-Digitising Language Learning

Yes, it escalated. I’m not only seeking old Teach Yourself language books – I’m now hunting down the retro cassette packs too. How incorrigibly 1990s of me!

Now, this is not just a case of me giving into my obsessive-compulsive collector traits. My latest second-hand drive is all part of a general strategy to wean myself off 24/7 digital connectivity. Apps and social media are excellent language learning companions, but like many, I’m beginning to feel the digital fatigue.

Duolingo (bless their hearts!) didn’t help much by adding a new level of challenge recently – diamond tournaments – which, obviously I had to spend far too much time on. My Gaelic and Norwegian may have come on in leaps and bounds lately thanks to that little carrot-and-stick, but I can almost see a phone screen when I close my eyes now.

I’m being gamified to distraction.

Yes, it’s definitely time to rebalance the digital with some offline learning. And so I’ve sourced a few of these old Teach Yourself packs, a 30-year-old Walkman, and created a little retro language corner.

A retro 1980s handheld tape player from Sony

My gloriously retro Sony tape player

Language Learning, Fast and Slow

There’s something warm and fuzzy about popping a cassette in, and forward-winding to the spot you want. I’m about to sound like a right old codger, but it’s almost more satisfying finding your way around a resource, as opposed to doing a quick click, jump and gaining instant gratification online. This contrast is another case of language learning, fast and slow, where slow can bring along a heap of easy-to-overlook joy.

What’s more, it’s cheap and easy to recreate that retro learning hygge. I’ve spotted plenty of these old TY book and cassette packs going on eBay in my recent hunts. While CD-based packs are still a bit pricier (being a bit less obsolete), you can regularly pick the cassette versions up for a steal. If you have something to play them on, there are bargains to be had.

Retro Teach Yourself book and cassette language packs from the 1990s

Retro Teach Yourself book and cassette language packs from the 1990s

Retro Happy Learning

Of course, you can always go that little bit further. After all, creating a happy learning space is all about triggering warm memories and feelings associated with studying. To that end, I have my eye on a couple of old Coomber cassette players now, the exact same models that our teachers played Tricolore French cassettes on in the early 90s.

Nostalgia, combined with sheer geekdom, can be a great motivator in language learning.

Teach Yourself Gujurati (1995) cassette

Teach Yourself Gujurati (1995) cassette

A Christmas tree decoration up close. Image from freeimages.com

Christmas Favourites : Perennial Linguaphile Picks for 2021

I’ve done a few Christmas gifts for language lovers posts in the past. Perhaps that’s more out of wishful thinking than anything else… After all, who doesn’t like making their pleas to Santa public?

But looking back, it’s a case of plus ça change. The same book series, the same piles of lovely stationery. Linguaphiles never really change. If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Many of those old gift ideas are still going strong on a solid five stars. And some have since expanded to include new languages and features.

So what’s in Language Santa’s sack this year?

Dream Books

My top picks for Chrimbo books hasn’t changed much. In the absence of any fantabulous new grammar series or language courses, the set-collector in me is still captivated by a couple of ranges.

ROUTLEDGE GRAMMARS

Because honestly, you can’t beat them, can you? Many have seen updated editions recently, and a couple of new languages have come out in the Essential Grammar range (cue shrieks of excitement): Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian, and West Greenlandic. Music to the ears of anyone looking for more ‘off the beaten track’ language resources.

And I can barely contain my excitement that finally we’re getting an Icelandic Essential Grammar from Routledge. It’s due out on 21st December, just in time for Christmas. Oh my, it’s like they knew

This year also saw the addition of Intermediate Persian and Intermediate Korean to the Grammar and Workbook titles, too. Thanks, Santa Routledge.

SHORT STORIES IN…

These were an exciting addition to the language learning market when they appeared. There have been short stories collections for learners before, of course. Penguin have a great couple of titles in French, German, Italian and Spanish.

But what’s nice about these is that they’re written with key structures and high frequency vocabulary in mind. They’re also available in lots more languages, including some underserved ones like Icelandic and Turkish. What’s more, they all match. So, if you’re studying multiple languages, you’re getting similar input in both, and one isn’t being neglected over the other because of a resources mismatch.

It’s great to see that two more titles are in the pipeline for 2022: Irish Beginners and Japanese Intermediate. For our 2022 wish list, could I ask the Short Stories Santa for a Gaelic, Greek and Polish too?

TEACH YOURSELF TUTORS

If you hadn’t noticed, I’m a bit of a TY fanboy. It’s a nostalgia thing – I love a bit of language learning vintage.

TY reinvigorated their range with the excellent Tutor series a couple of years back, and they’re still fresh and relevant. While there haven’t been any news ones added to the range yet (pretty please, Teach Yourself!), the fourteen titles there are already classics in polyglot circles, and again, represent a fair few languages without masses of material available for learners otherwise.

Verdict? Still solid stocking fillers (if you have quite large stockings).

Tech Toys

2020, was all about the VR. Most likely, the pandemic and rolling lockdowns had something to do with that. But VR has proven it’s not just a flash in the pan. Its user base is growing, and it’s still a fantastic immersion tool for language learning.

It wasn’t all rosy with tech, though. Two years previous, I was raving about a brilliant Chinese voice assistant crowdfunding for development on IndieGoGo. A friend of mine had even invested, and there was some really positive hype around it. Following it up to post this update, I was sad to learn that the project hit serious difficulties, leaving a lot of people disappointed. Still, with the language learning potential of general purpose voice assistants, competition was always going to stiff.

At least we still have VR. My tip for 2022? It’s still get an Oculus! Christmas is the best excuse.

Wear It With Pride

Finally, alternative items that weren’t on my radar over previous Christmas seasons include funky wearables. Maybe hiding behind this newfound sartorial daringness is the pandemic, and successive lockdowns where we all gradually felt less self-conscious about what we had on. But I really started to like more fab ‘n’ fun clothing over the past year, like these linguist t-shirts on Etsy. Amazon lists some fancy (and also quite bizarre ones) too.

I’m just sprucing up my wardrobe ready to step out at the 2022 round of polyglot events.

A fault line. Learn to love yours in language learning! Image from freeimages.com

Finding Fault : Learning from Past Performance

Going through some old files the other day, I came across a bunch of Icelandic MP3 recordings I’d made for an old 30 Day Speaking Challenge. A long time ago.

Needless to say, when I played them back, I didn’t feel too impressed. The accent, the grammatical errors, the stoppy-starty delivery. Not my finest work I tut-tutted.

But, listening on through gritted teeth, something started to happen. I found myself silently correcting the mistakes. I was almost willing handy hints for improvement back in time to that previous version of myself.

Fine to Be At Fault!

Old, imperfect language learning work is never anything to feel shame or embarrassment over. Most obviously, it shows us how far we’ve come.

But as ‘faulty’ resources, they’re actually far from useless. They give us chance to review and remedy mistakes that we were prone to in the past. Yes, they do crystallise errors. But as such, they also serve as great anti-examples of language use, as well as remind us that we no longer make them.

The same goes for non-language material, too. Some years ago, I made some ‘talking revision notes’ for a social science module I was taking with the Open University. Listening back to them, beyond the initial cringe, I ended up in a kind of mental conversation with myself: lots of “yes, but what about…” and “that’s one way to look at it, but…“. It is such a great way to interrogate past knowledge with a present outlook.

Finding Fault : A Do-Over

Something you can do, if your previous faults annoy you too much, is a do-over. Rerecord your speaking challenges. Rewrite your previous notes. Create fresh summaries of your learning material including everything you’ve learnt since. But keep both old and new handy as a testament to your progress.

If you’re tempted to delete your old recordings, or trash your old notebooks, pause to think: what can I still learn about my journey from these? Be generous to yourself – to a fault.

Icelandic horses. Image from freeimages.com.

Learning Icelandic and Norwegian Together : Close Buddies and False Friends

There are advantages and disadvantages to learning very closely related languages together. And despite the benefits generally outweighing the snags, false friends are probably the most irksome spot of that downside. Icelandic and Norwegian are one such pairing that seems really popular in polyglot circles lately.

Because of the conservatism of Icelandic, tackling the two often feels like studying contemporary and ‘historical’ Norse side by side (although we need to be careful not to fall into that trap – Icelandic is a modern language that has been developing from Old Norse as long as Norwegian has).

That closeness gives us plenty of hooks to transfer knowledge. For example, Iceland þ (th) will show up as Norwegian t where the latter has inherited the same word:

🇮🇸 þreyttur – 🇳🇴 trøtt (tired)

But elsewhere, even when there is a really transparent cognate pair, meaning and use have drifted in the sands of time.

Traps to Trip You Up

One subtle cognate slip-up occurs with semsom, the relativiser in clauses such as the book that I read. Icelandic and Norwegian agree as far as that is concerned:

🇮🇸 bókin sem ég las – 🇳🇴 boka som jeg leste

But that’s all they can agree on. Firstly, sem is not optional in Icelandic, whereas Norwegian can do as English does and simply say boka jeg leste.

What’s more, they also fall out when it comes to the other, more prepositional use, as in like a cat:

🇮🇸 eins og köttur – 🇳🇴 som en katt

That’s, like, a bit tricky.

Taking a Liking

Likewise, líkur / lik (alike) don’t always map onto each other like for like. While ‘they are alike‘ can be:

🇮🇸 þeir eru líkar – 🇳🇴 de er like

…in Icelandic, you’re more often than not going to come up against that eins again to mean ‘alike’:

🇮🇸 þeir eru eins

As eins clearly derives from the number one, it’s not hard to connect this to phrases like one and the same in English, or en og samme in Norwegian. Still, Icelandic uses eins pretty much everywhere that Norwegian uses like, so it’s another distinction to mark on the map.

Add to the fact that Icelandic uses cognate líka for also (også in Norwegian), and it has even more potential to be a confuser.

Do You Really Like It?

And like it or not, we’re not finished with like yet. It actually turns out that it really likes to mess with us. The Old Norse verb líka has ended up in both languages (just as English ended up with like from a more distant common ancestor). However, in Icelandic, líka is used in purely impersonal expressions:

🇮🇸 mér líkar það (lit. to me likes/pleases it)

…whereas in Norwegian, it works just the way like does in English, with the liker as the subject, and a direct object as the liked thing:

🇳🇴 jeg liker det (I like it)

Not only that: while expressions with líka in Icelandic do translate as like, they’re not the most colloquial way to express liking any more, and may come across as rather archaic. These days, you’re better off with a phrase using skemmtilegur (amusing, entertaining) like:

🇮🇸 mér finnst það skemmtilegt (to me finds-itself it amusing)

Admittedly, these quirks can seem less than amusing as a beginner learner, to be sure.

Crazy House

Funnily enough, it’s the realm of house and home where a little cluster of words diverges quite radically in meaning. Perhaps it’s not surprising for words relating to everyday living arrangements; as customs and practices change, old terms get repurposed and attached to ever more differing concepts. But stand by: this set seems like it went through a tumble dryer.

Norwegian rom will be familiar to English speakers as the cognate room. It meant largely the same in Old Norse – any room or internal space. But in Icelandic, it can now have the meaning bed. There’s quite an interesting theory for how that shift happened here.

Meanwhile, Norwegian seng, which means bed, is cognate with Icelandic sæng – which means duvet. And Norwegian dyne, which is duvet, materialises as Icelandic dýna – which means mattress. Utter bedroom confusion (as if deciding which side to sleep on wasn’t hard enough already).

Honorable Mentions

There are, predictably, plenty of these pitfalls between the languages – far too many for a short article. But amongst the hotchpotch of favourite falseish friends between Icelandic and Norwegian are two more favourites of mine.

Firstly, the word lag can mean layer in both languages. In Icelandic, however, it can also mean song. It’s notably a word in the title of one of Iceland’s most successful Eurovision entries, the boppy Eitt lag enn (one more song) of 1990. In Norwegian, on the other hand, it can mean teamOne more team just doesn’t sound as fun, does it?

Along similar lines, we have grein (spelt gren in some varieties of Norwegian), which means branch to both Icelanders and Norwegians. But in Icelandic, the very same word is used for an article in a newspaper. A case of a word branching out, perhaps?

Variety Show

It’s all fun and games, of course, and one of the reasons it can be so fascinating to learn languages within the same grein of a family tree. For one thing, you end up collecting juicy etymological trivia in droves (the kind of stuff you can spin out for an upbeat language blog, for instance).

But a final point for fellow dual learners concerns the variety of Norwegian you learn. If, instead of vanilla Bokmål, you study Nynorsk, or any of the traditional dialects of Norway under that umbrella, you might well come across a few more cognates and similarities to Icelandic. Bokmål, as the heir to Riksmål and the imported Dano-Norwegian of centuries past, has levelled out some of the more Norsey features of traditional norsk. Dialects often preserve these beautifully. If you’re up for exploring this further, then a good place to start is NRK’s language programme Språksnakk, which regularly answers questions on local vocab features that bear more than a passing resemblance to islenska.

Do you have similar experiences with this or any other pair of languages? Let us know your favourite drifting cognates in the comments!

A dog with big ears. Phonotactics is what governs which sounds sound 'right' together in a language. Image from freeimages.com

Phonotactics Physio : When Sounds Sound Wrong

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my ongoing linguistics adventure, it’s that there’s a fancy word for everything in science, and linguistics is no exception. Welcome, phototactics (from Greek, roughly sound arranging).

The phonotactics of a language govern how different sounds fit together within it: which can occur next to each other, which can start a word, which can end one, and so on. It’s thanks to the phonotactics of English, for example, that we don’t have words like ngrasn.

Unsurprisingly, then, it’s always fun and games when the phonotactics of your native language square up against those of your target language.

Phonotactic Fallout

Mismatched phonotactics result in the distinctive features of often stereotyped non-native accents. For instance, Spanish-speaking learners of English will often first add an e- before words beginning with sp- and st-. The reason? The phonotactics of Spanish don’t allow those combinations word-initially, so they’re anathema to Spanish ears. By contrast, cognates of English sp- and st- words in Spanish already have that e- built in: especial, especie, and even España itself.

Similarly, English learners of Modern Greek might have issues with particular clusters of sounds. The word mortal, for example, is θνητός (thnitós). When was the last time you heard an English word containing thn, at the start, middle or even end? Less alien is perhaps Greek ξ (ks), as there are plenty of English examples containing it: box, exit, exaggerate. In Greek, however, it very commonly occurs at the start of a word; ξέρω (ksero, I know), ξέχασα (ksehasa, I forgot), ξυπνώ (ksipno, I wake up). Early learners of Greek are often tempted to add a quick little schwa vowel between the sounds, like kǝsero for ‘ksero. The initial ks is so strange to English ears that we pronounce Greek borrowing ξυλόφωνο (ksylophone) as ‘zylophone’ to pander to our own phonotactics.

Phonotactics Physio

So how to cope with wildly different phonotactics in your target language?

Getting used to creating sounds unusual in your native language involves training muscle memory. Physio for phonotactics, if you will. That means practising individual words, as well as undertaking more involved speech tasks like shadowing.

It also helps to identify cases where your native language does come pretty close to the target language sound, noting that it might happen between words rather than within them. Take a couple of Polish words thrust into the topical limelight recently: szczepionka (vaccine) and szczepić (to vaccinate). That initial szcz, or /ʂt͡ʂ/ as Wiktionary so accurately puts it, simply doesn’t occur within any single word in English. The closest English gets is with broadly similar sounds across word boundaries, like wash cherries. But say that out loud a few times, concentrating on the sh_ch, and you get an idea of Polish szcz that you can transfer to your Polish pronunciation.

Tackle such words repeatedly, enlisting the help of your iTalki tutor or similar in topical chat related to them. Gradually, you will start building up a target language phonotactics  that doesn’t depend on your own native language judgements.

 

Polylogger makes tracking your study hours easy. And it can throw up some revelations! Image from freeimages.com

Polylogger Revelations

I finally boarded the Polylogger train and joined the enthusiastic activity tracking community a couple of weeks ago. And to tell the truth, it’s been a bit of a revelation.

Chances are you might well have beaten me to the best seats already. Polylogger already has a well-established, sizeable, active and very sociable fanbase on social media. In fact, it was on Twitter that I first spotted fellow language aficionados singing its praises, so it seemed timely to hop on board already. Better late than never!

Getting started was a cinch. It’s quick and easy to sign up, and the study diary tools are a piece of cake to use. When you get into the swing of things, logging – and watching those graphs grow – is real language geek fun. I love being motivated by what other people are working on, and have already spotted a couple of new resources I didn’t know about through community entries.

But to make the most of the tool, it was what I should be logging that I needed to sort out first and foremost.

That is, what counts as a study session? Just those substantial chunks of time, like hour-long iTalki sessions? Or every little thing, including the odd couple of minutes minutes here and there on casual language apps, or a brief podcast listen during breakfast?

The great #langtwt community, once again, had the answers. It should definitely include the latter. After all, those little bits and pieces all add up. So, off I went, logging my language learning life.

But what secrets did Polylogger have to reveal?

Polylogger : exposing your true habits

By far, its most scandalous exposé for me is the mismatch between what I think I focus on, and what I actually do spend most of my time on. Let’s call it delusion-busting, since I certainly had a very different idea about what I was getting up to. In my mind, I split my main language learning time equally between Greek and Polish. They’re my current active learning projects right now, and I’ve been having at least one iTalki lesson in both every week, as well as fitting in independent activities. I’d actually set Polish as my default language, assuming it was the one I was prioritising most, even attending extra group classes with my tutor.

The thing is, the Polylogger stats do not lie. Shockingly, I’ve actually been spending hours more on Greek. Pretty much twice as many, in fact. How could I not know that?

After analysing the diary stats, the reason jumped out (and was pretty easy to guess in any case). It’s back to that logging every little thing strategy. The numbers show that I naturally fall to Greek when I do my little daily pass-the-time activities like Anki, Duolingo and Glossika. In the long run, that was a massive added value for Greek, and none for Polish. Polish was certainly no poor cousin, and I was working in a couple of major sessions a week – just not the cascade of extras that Greek enjoyed.

No wonder I’ve been finding Greek easier and easier while my Polish level continues to edge along so gradually. Thanks to Polylogger, I can start to rethink my strategy and redress that bias.

Polylogger has been a revelation in itself, providing extra focus and deeper insights into my learning. Whether you’re new to the tool too, or a seasoned user, feel free to add newbie @richwestsoley to your circle!