Voice assistants - multilingual robot helpers in your phone! (Image from freeimages.com)

You cannot be Siri-ous! Voice Assistants for Language Learning

Switching the language settings on your phone is a well-known trick for fast-tracking your language learning. But with constant improvement to Voice Assistant technology like Siri and Google Assistant, learners have something potentially even more exciting in their pockets: a mobile native speaker.

How can we take advantage of this ubiquitous technology? And how effective is it as a learning tool?

I road-tested the technique over the past few weeks using Siri in Norwegian on my iPhone. And above all, it has been a fun ride!

Behaviour change

The irony is that in spite of the widespread nature of the tech, Voice Assistants struggle to find a regular place in our lives. Barely a quarter of mobile users speak to their phone daily; 40% say they have never used the feature. Many of us leave the powerful technology of personalised AI unused, even in our native languages.

From my own personal experience, and that of family and friends, it seems that Voice Assistant apps are entertaining curios rather than serious tools. When was the last time you last asked your phone for something?

Given all this, just using Siri at all is a behaviour change for a lot of us. But that makes this technique something of a voyage of discovery, too. Just what can our clever smartphones actually do?

Vocab of the day-to-day

The answer: well, not quite everything, despite the grand claims. Siri and Google Assistant have a set of skills which focus very tightly on the organisation of the day-to-day. They are not as clever at more transactional, lengthy exchanges. So while they might not improve your general conversation skills, they provide an excellent language workout for weather, time and place vocabulary in particular.

Through experimenting with your phone, will find your own unique way to fit these specified skills of foreign language Voice Assistants into your life. For me, as a walker, the handiest phrases in my everyday have been:

  • What is the temperature today?
  • How is the weather today?
  • When is sunset today?

After repeated use of those, my Norwegian weather and time vocab is positively steaming! And the best thing? I typically hate practising number, time and date vocabulary in any language. That is the material I will skip first to get to the ‘meaty’ stuff as a learner. The novelty of using Siri in Norwegian has finally got me practising – and remembering – those essential phrases. Aiming to ask one or two of these questions daily makes for a good weekly plan tactic, too.

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Thinking on your feet

Microchips are not perfect. Your voice assistant may not always understand you first time round. That goes especially for the early stages of language learning when our speech is less colloquial. But the upside to that? It is a stellar learning opportunity.

Misunderstandings with your digital assistant force you to practise rephrasing, an essential skill in speaking foreign languages. If it doesn’t work first time, say it again in a different way. It is just as valid with your Voice Assistant as with a flesh-and-blood native speaker.

Of course, this can be a challenge. After three attempts at finding out where the nearest supermarket is, desperation may creep in. But it does force you to be creative!

Have a little fun

Now, riveting conversation all this may not be. But that is not to say that there is no attempt on the part of the developers to add some personality spice. Who hasn’t said something silly to their Voice Assistant on the first encounter, just to elicit a funny response?

If you tire of the weather, try “do you like me?“, “are you happy?” or even “I love you” in the target language. The responses may be enlightening!

Translation station

As a side note, it may seem obvious, but don’t forget that Voice Assistant apps also offer direct translation capabilities. Learning the phrases for how do you say X in … and translate X into Y turn your phone into a quick dictionary tool. The catch: it might not be available in your target-native language pair (as is the case with Norwegian-English, unfortunately).

When Siri cannot translate.

“Hey Siri, how do you say ‘translate’ in English?” “I cannot translate from that language yet, but I can search for it on the Internet.”

Cross-language fail

As fun as this language learning technique is, it is not trouble-free. In particular, there are problems when languages cross over in our multilingual lives. For instance, you may need to accustom yourself to saying the names of family and friends phonetically, as if they were target language words. Otherwise, asking Norwegian Siri to call Aisling is going to result in a very blank digital stare.

Messaging functionality is also compromised due to this cross-language fail. I instructed Siri – in Norwegian – to send a text to a friend, then dictated the text in English. Predictably (easy to say now!), Siri tried to make sense of my message as Norwegian. I now have no idea what it was originally meant to say, but it caused a great deal of confusion at the other end!

A garbled text message from my Voice Assistant

What happens when your Norwegian Voice Assistant tries to send a text in English…

One-track language

The fact is that it is quite inconvenient to switch your Voice Assistant language settings all the time. So, if you want to take advantage of this technique, you will have to accept that certain things like text and calendar functions will be hampered – if not rendered completely impossible – while you are in learning mode.

Similarly, it is only practical to do this in one language at a time. In an ideal mobile world, I could speak all my languages to Siri and it would intelligently recognise and respond in the appropriate language. Alas, we are not quite there yet.

If you work around these stumbling blocks, you can eke a great deal of useful language practice from switching your Voice Assistant language. In fact, I’ve grown rather fond of mine; I might just leave it switched to Norwegian for the foreseeable!

At the heart of it is this: using a Voice Assistant in your foreign language is, quite simply, good fun. It is a moment of show-offy, giddy pride when family and friends hear me address Siri in a foreign language, for example. It is a badge of honour, a little show of skill that can boost motivation. And that is certainly worth the effort.

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!

Eat the frog - not literally, of course, but in a language learning sense! Image from freeimages.com.

Frogs for breakfast! Language planning and the early bird

Do you ever get to the end of your language learning day, week or month with a heap of tasks to get through from your planning? Does your joy turn into a chore when you realise how many Anki flashcards have built up, or how many pages of your book you need to read to keep on track?

Then maybe it’s time to start breaking the fast on a bit of frog.

Before you baulk at the prospect, don’t worry! It’s not as gruesome as it sounds. The eat-the-frog principle is about getting big tasks out of the way early on. You would want to get that task out of the way as quickly as possible if you had to do it, right? Well, you can similarly prioritise lengthy and effort-intensive learning activities to do early in your planning.

Applying eat-the-frog planning to your learning, you avoid letting routine tasks queue up and become overwhelming later on. It is a stock technique of productivity coaches. Self-development author Brian Tracy has written a whole book on digesting your grenouille early in the day.

A more palatable metaphor?

If the frog image is a little too disturbing, then perhaps there is another way to think of this. Last year, I came across a wonderful idiom in Spanish: comerse un marrón, literally to eat up a chestnut. That chestnut is the unpleasant morsel to swallow, the tedious task to get out of the way. The sooner you get it done, the better you feel.

But, candied chestnuts also being tasty treats, perhaps this is a more apt way to think of our language tasks. Lovely, but leaving them all at once to eat at the end of the day will do us no good at all!

Eat up those chestnuts early! Image from freeimages.com.

Eat up those chestnuts early!

Language learners tend to place high expectations on themselves. To keep these many frogs and chestnuts as sweet as possible, it can help to combine weekly planning with a regular routine to tackle them systematically.

Build a morning routine

The business of simply living a life can really throw our language learning off the tracks sometimes. Job, family, friends, other interests – they all suck up our time. It’s tempting to leave our languages to the end of the day, after all that is done. After all, we love languages, don’t we? To indulge in them in the last, quiet hours of the day should be a treat. Right?

Well, in our passion for the subject, we forget how energy-intensive study is. Often, all I want to do after the sun goes down is chill. For sure, certain language exercises fit the bill – foreign language Netflix, passive podcast listening and so on – but more vanilla study activities like textbooks and Anki decks require our full attention and effort.

Moving some of these tasks to the morning can have a drastic effect on your study stamina. You not only have the benefit of a more fresher, less depleted you. You also avoid that sense of stress and urgency from running out of road at the end of the day.

Anki cards, for example, soon pile up if you leave them. It’s an uncomfortable feeling when, at 11pm, you realise that you have to shift 80 card reviews before the pile up on tomorrow’s to-do list. Then there’s the Duolingo XP that you need to get to maintain your streak – but it’s nearly the end of the day. That stress makes the task all the more uncomfortable.

Instead, swallow that frog for breakfast. On the train to work, at your desk before you start your daily tasks, during your morning break. Blast them when you have time and energy in abundance.

Micro-task regime

This kind of planning works especially well with smaller, more granular micro-tasks. These are typically standalone activities, taking 5-15 minutes each. Vocabulary review and online / app tutorial sections are a good example, although you could turn any activity into a micro-task. For instance, a ten-minute session of foreign language reading soon mounts up over time. This works particularly well if you are reading a book divided into very short chapters (like the Norwegian crime novel I’m currently reading!).

My own weekly language learning to-do currently looks something like this, with both daily and weekly tasks. As the foundation for these weekly planning lists, I use the 12-week year system, which helps focus my efforts on defined goals.

Planning a language learning week in Evernote

Planning a language learning week in Evernote

Before work tends to be my ideal time for frog-fighting. I try to get my 100-200 points on Duolingo then, as well as all of my Anki card reviews. One thing I know for sure: if I haven’t shifted the bulk of it by the evening, it feels like more of a chore. If I blast it in the morning, I not only have my routine learning / review done and dusted. I also get a feel-good buzz of “this is a productive start to the day!” from it.

If you follow a seven-day cycle like this, the same applies to your entire week. If, by Saturday, you still have a heap of weekly goals to tick off, the pressure mounts. The stress that causes is the biggest passion killer for a subject you love. Instead, try tackling your heftier language tasks, like active podcast listening, at the beginning of the week.

Language learning should never become a chore. Prevent your own frogs / chestnuts / other appropriate metaphors from getting big, ugly and stressful by building a structured morning routine. Frogs for breakfast – sunny side up!

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.

The World (image from freeimages.com)

Challenging labels : exploiting globalism for language learning

Enjoying a cold stout from an East London microbrewery for my birthday, I glanced down at the label and caught a real treat. There was the satisfyingly short list of ingredients, repeated in multiple languages on the label.

Hoxton Stout - complete with ingredients in multiple languages!

Hoxton Stout – complete with ingredients in multiple languages!

Geeking over a polyglot product label is an observation that gives away my generation. I belong to that not-so-distant cohort of kids who cross that divide where the Internet flickered to life, the world became smaller and the everyday became truly global.

As a language-obsessed kid, this kind of access to target language was something rare and special. Any snippet of foreign language was valuable. A bit of French, German, Spanish on the back of a packet was a little piece of magic.

In today’s world, languages are everywhere.

It gets harder by the year to remember that it wasn’t always like this. For one thing, legislation on food labelling is (thankfully) tighter today. There’s much more to read on your packets than ever before.

But that explosion in multiple languages is down to a world of increasingly interconnected flows across vast distances. Those flows continue to be a rich mine of source material for linguists, however much we now take them for granted.

At the mercy of markets

The specific languages that we read on the ephemera around us depend on some complex, fluctuating chains. The ebbs and flows of globalism change regularly, and what seems common  one year can disappear the next. Language learning label hunters are at the mercy of markets when it comes to scouring products for vocabulary.

As my Hoxton stout shows, you can strike it lucky. Your chosen tongues can turn up in the most unexpected of places. Norwegian in a Shoreditch pub – who’d have thought?

But sometimes, you have to just work with what the markets give you.

In the UK right now, it is wonderfully easy to find labelling in the languages of Eastern Europe. In the current setup, European supply chains see products manufactured at a more favourable cost in the East, then shipped across the whole continent. To cater for multiple local markets, labels now include the whole gamut of languages in lists of ingredients and instructions.

Incidentally, the Open University has an excellent (now archived) course on this very subject: DD205 Living in a globalised world. Well worth checking out if you are interested in learning more.

Keep an open mind

For a learner of Polish, these arrangements are very welcome. But even if those languages are unfamiliar, or not yet on your radar, perhaps the exotic ingredient words are enough to pique your interest in some of these lesser-studied gems.

After all, perhaps we can respond to languages, as learners, much as consumers to product markets. Our choices about what to learn are broadened, honed, funnelled – and of course, limited – by the materials that land in front of us thanks to these global flows.

Constantly surrounded by a certain language? Work with it!

So how can we bend this tide of globalism, with its flood of goods, to our own language learning?

Hunt them down

Discounters like Poundland are a perfect place to find polyglot goods with global spread, since they are mass-produced for economies of scale without the expensive localisation of premium products. Once you find a rich seam of them, the sheer volume of multilanguage packets will busy you on endless shopping trips.

Globalism takes it one step further, too. Increasingly, whole outlets, as well as individual products from overseas, can find their way to your local High Street. Danish learners are in luck in the UK, for instance: branches of Flying Tiger are popping up in all sorts of cities, chock full of dansk-branded goodies. That’s not to mention Muji for Japanese students. Likewise, lucky French learners can head to L’Occitane for a vocab hit.

Flying Tiger Danish pencils - a linguist's spoils of globalism!

Flying Tiger Danish blyanter
a linguist’s spoils of globalism!

Seek them near – and far

You don’t have to wait for the products to come to you, either. Bringing things back from holiday is a great way to learn from packaging and feed your enthusiasm with the curiosity of others. You can, for example, turn overseas products into quirky talking points with friends. In my experience, few fail to be (at least briefly!) intrigued by Kvikklunsj, the Norwegian incarnation of the KitKat. 🇳🇴🍫😁

No wonder. It’s not only covered in Bokmål, but is a staple of Norwegian everyday life. Language, culture and chocolate – could linguaphiles really ask for more? 😋

Chocolate – and language – are meant for sharing. Delight in the opportunity to show friends and colleagues your world by bringing items like this back as post-trip gifts and explaining what they are. Explaining and teaching to others is a fantastic way to consolidate your own learning. You might even win a few curious converts to the polyglot cause!

Consume them actively

These products are manufactured to be enjoyed. So as well as consuming your chocolate or biscuits with gusto, devour that vocabulary actively too. Look up each item on those ingredients lists and turn them into concrete Anki notes. Make Quizlet or Educandy activities to test yourself on them. Look up sukker, miód and Hagebutte on Wiktionary for more detailed lexical info. Take your search further on the relevant language version of Wikipedia, too.

Always consider polyglot products a jumping point for vocabulary exploration.

To keep track of your finds, log them in an electronic scrapbook. Multimedia notebooks Evernote and OneNote are perfect for this: simply snap your wrappers into a note, and type relevant vocabulary explanations underneath for reference.

At this point, you may shudder: what have I become? Collecting electronic snippings of sweet wrappers and crisp packets? Don’t worry: Just pat yourself on the back and think of the language learning!

Globalism and the global village linguist

Even for those without grand travel plans, foreign language labels are a reminder that there is somebody else out there. Somebody, even, who might like to enjoy that Hoxton Stout in a market far, far away. And if language learners appreciate one thing, it is the nature of today’s global village.

When the tectonic plates of globalism shift – as may happen, for example, in the aftermath of current political changes in the UK – those flows can change drastically. The label languages of tomorrow may be quite different. We may feel helpless in the face of this. But perhaps a more proactive way to view it, as a linguist, is as opportunity: new languages, new cultures, new people.

Life, like language, is in constant flux: adapt, consume and enjoy it.

As contemporary linguists, we enjoy an unprecedented level of foreign language in everyday places. Seize the opportunities, and ride the flows of globalism. You too can get (linguistically) rich quick!

There's no better time to clean up your Anki! (Image from freeimages.com)

Anki Spring Cleaning : Brush up your decks!

It’s almost Spring! So doesn’t it feel like time for a refresh? A change is as good as a rest, and if that doesn’t go for our Anki decks too, I don’t know what does.

The thing with well-used tools is that, over time, the lose their sheen. Imperfections creep in, annoying niggles that we ignore for the time being. A note type out of place. An image not showing now and again. It may not interrupt our learning terribly, but after a while they can start to grate.

That’s why it’s a great idea to lay aside some time every few months to clean up your Anki decks.  If you are also a stickler for order, you will understand this declutter itch!

So what is the order of ceremonies for our Anki freshen-up blast? Our tidying spree here will focus on three areas:

  1. Bringing card images into the Anki file rather than external links
  2. Cleaning up unwanted media (without deleting your card images)
  3. Identifying and eliminating rogue note types

Before we start, remember to exercise caution when tinkering around in Anki’s underbelly. Preferably, make a full backup via the Export feature before you start. Better safe than sorry!

1. All-inclusive media

If you know a bit of HTML, it’s easy to spruce up your cards with colour and images. When I customise Anki cards, I often use flags, for instance. For the visual polyglot learner in you, flags can really help keep multiple languages separate in memory.

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

A Norwegian card in Anki

Now, for speed and ease, I often just search for a flag image online and use the URL directly in the card, like this:

<img src="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/0/03/Flag_of_Italy.svg/1500px-Flag_of_Italy.svg.png" width="50" height="40" style="margin-bottom: 20px; border: 2px solid black" />

The problem here is not only that the code looks bloated and long-winded. More seriously, when using the decks without internet, the flags are simply absent, since they are downloaded every time.

Bring them home

The trick is to download and place your images inside Anki so they ‘live’ inside your data. Anki has a media folder just for this. Usually, the program places items there automatically when you add sound or images to a card, for example. But you can place them there yourself, too, and refer to them in your card code.

To open the media folder, open your Anki Preferences. Then, select the Backups tab. You should see a link titled Open backup folder – click it.

Anki Preferences

Anki Preferences

Now, the folder it opens isn’t the one we want. We need to go up one directory level, then into the folder called collection.media. This is where your Anki account keeps all of its MP3, PNG and similar files. With this folder open, it’s a good idea to close the Anki program in the background while we work.

Download and add the flag images and otherwise to this folder. You might want to resize them first. And, if you have lots of them, use a file naming system that keeps things tidy. For example, I prefix flag image files with fl_.

Close the folder once you are done, then reopen Anki. Head to the browser, select a card for customising, and you are set to use simply the file name on its own to link the image:

<img src="flag_it.png" width="50" height="40" style="margin-bottom: 20px; border: 2px solid black" />

Isn’t that so much better?

One note: you can nest files in subfolders and refer to them in your code, like flags/flag_it.png. However, while the desktop app recognises these paths, it seems that the iPhone app doesn’t. As with all these things, it’s worth playing around to see what you can and can’t do (while taking copious backups along the way, of course).

2. Media hangover

While we hang around in Anki’s media emporium, we may as well take the opportunity to keep on cleaning!

For a long time, I wondered why my Anki syncs were so large. It turned out that the media from old, since removed, shared decks were still hanging around. Inexplicably, deleting the deck hadn’t deleted the associated media. Carefully checking and deleting that wodge of unwanted files took multiple megabytes off my sync.

Of course, Anki has a tool for this already, in Tools > Check Media. In theory, it lists unused / unliked media for deletion. But sometimes a hands-on approach is just a bit more reliable. For one thing, your card images, like the flags above, will be listed as unused. They are not attached to cards, but rather your card templates, meaning they fall through Anki’s net. We don’t want the program to delete those!

A nice tidy Anki media folder

A nice and tidy Anki media folder

3. Rogue note types, begone!

Similarly, as with the media clutter, I’d accumulated some note types that meant nothing to me over prolonged use. Some of them seemed to be versions of standard cards but with odd suffixes, like Basic and Reversed Card-accfe. This seems to happen when cards are imported from shared decks, and there is some conflict with existing card types.

Fortunately, it is an easy problem to fix. Head to Tools > Manage Note Types on the home screen of the desktop app. Then, hit Add to create a new note type based on the same template as the strangely named notes.

Adding a new note type in Anki

Adding a new note type in Anki

After the new note type is ready, you can head to the Browse section of Anki. In the left-hand list, you should find an entry for the rogue note type. Click it to view cards assigned to that type, and highlight the notes you want to correct. Then go to Edit > Change Note Type, and change the selected cards to the new, corrected note type you set up above.

After you have done this to all the cards assigned to the strangely-named rogue types, you can go back to Tools > Manage Note Types on the main screen and delete them. Check that it reads 0 notes next to the type before you do – if not, you still need to change the type of some cards unless you no longer want to keep them.

Changing the note type in Anki

Changing the note type in Anki

As you get used to the internal machinery of the Anki app, you can do a regular sweep to keep on top of these foibles. It’s quite satisfying – a little akin to doing regular weeding to keep your garden in order – and will increase that sense of ownership you have over your vocabulary.

So roll up your sleeves, make plentiful backups, and get to Spring cleaning! Your Anki decks will positively shine for it.

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!

Modal verbs can lend colour to your speech (image from freeimages.com)

À la modal : how these little nuancing verbs can fix your fluency

I have a nerdish love of verbs. For me, it’s where it all comes together in language. They are sentence glue. Conjugate them, and you can hang the rest of the sentence from them like on the branches of a tree. But there is a small group of verbs that always make me feel more expressive and fluent in a foreign language. They are the modal verbs.

You have likely already come across them in your studies. In English, they are words like canmustshould and so on. They are often irregular, and very high-frequency in the languages they belong to.

So why are they such a boost to fluency?

À la modal verbs

The magic of modals is that they nuance what you say. They decorate your sentence tree with colourful subtexts. Technically speaking, they layer your speech with modality – the ability to express situations which may not be real.

Concretely, modals are verbs that imply intention, possibility, obligation and probability. These are all complex nuances, but very quick and easy to apply succinctly with modals. And they fix a common frustration of beginners: boring conversation syndrome.

It is a common beginner language learner experience to feel limited by straightforward, indicative tenses. You quickly frustrate yourself in speaking if all you can do is make statements of fact. I am a studentI went to a concertwe have a dog, we travelled to Spain. Hmm – boring!

Modal verbs change that up. They colour the story. Suddenly, I could be a studentI wanted to go to a concertwe should have a dogwe might go to Spain. Beyond bare statements of fact, you are now expressing hopes, wishes, dreams, judgements, assessments and more. From dull zero to language learning hero through the addition of just a few words.

Letting you off lightly

Modal verbs can actually make your language easier to speak, as well. Since they usually connect to the bare infinitive – or most basic form – of another verb, they give you a wee respite from conjugating it.

For example, let’s take the Spanish verb phrase:

ir al colegio (to go to school)

Ir is a notoriously irregular verb. If you are fumbling for its past form when trying to say I went to school, then there is a simpler way: modal verbs and constructions. If you have memorised the simple past of ‘had to’ in Spanish, it becomes easy:

tuve que ir al colegio (I had to go to school)

That tuve que construction just saved you if you had forgotten the form fui (I went). Fair enough, the meaning is subtly different – you are expressing obligation here instead. But it is close enough to express the original indicative sense that you went to school too. A neat trick.

The great thing with this tactic is that just learning a couple of conjugated forms of modal verbs can go a long way. You need only learn a few key forms at first. Perhaps the first person present and past forms (I mustI had toI canI could and so on) are the most immediately useful for conversation. Then, simply clip on whole verb phrases to the end – no conjugation required. An instance fluency boost!

To continue the metaphor of the verb as the trunk of a tree, modal verbs are big, sturdy branches that can comfortably take the weight of even more verbs.

More bang for your buck

Let’s face it – some words are more useful than others.

For a start, modal verbs are common, high-frequency words that you will regularly come across. A good benchmark is where a word appears on a frequency list of words in the target language. Anything in the top hundred suggests that you will be exposed to the word all the time. Spanish puede (can) features in its top sixty, as does its French counterpart peut and German kann.

But something makes them even more useful that just being frequent. They are often semantically overloaded, too, meaning that they have multiple meanings depending on context.

Just take must in English. It can be a bare indicator of obligation, as in we must go. But it can also express the speaker’s assessment of high probability, as in they must be the new students. Many languages mirror this usage, such as the Spanish debe de estar cansado (he must be tired).

Consulting any good reference on your target language should throw up scores of examples. This Wiktionary page on the Spanish deber (must) gives a good overview of that word, for instance. After checking out constructions there, you can then hunt down sample sentences containing them on a service like Tatoeba.

Overloaded words are excellent news for squeezing lots of language out of a little learning. You get even greater mileage than normal out of each modal verb mastered.

Modal Verbs : fast-tracking fluency

Convinced by these little nuancing fluency helpers? The facts speak for themselves. Modal verbs are high frequency words. There are just a few to learn. They have dense, multiple meanings. And they make speaking easier when you are still grappling with general verb conjugation. They are the perfect fodder for a bit of language hacking towards fast fluency.

Could it be magic? It just might. Say yes we can and enjoy pumping up your fluency with modal verbs!

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!