A picture of a little yellow flower. Image from freeimages.com

It’s the Little Things : Serendipity and Lockdown Learning

It’s the little things that keep us going in challenging times. And no exception this week, which brought a tranche of serendipitous rediscoveries that kept the housebound language learning ticking over, preserving at least a modicum of precious lockdown sanity.

Many of us now have a heap of extra time on our hands at home right now. So clearly, many of these archaeological finds proceed from the fact that a lot of surprise spring-cleaning is going on. And from old, forgotten but effective study tools, to long-misplaced books, the little things keep coming.

It was the spirit of serendipity that gave me the biggest language-learning smile-moment of the week: my old Bose SoundTouch 20 WiFi speakers, resurrected to new life.

A picture of my Bose SoundTouch 20 Wifi speaker, playing the Norwegian radio station NRK P2.

Long shelved media equipment comes into its own. My old Bose SoundTouch 20 now serves as a precious connection to target language countries.

I’d shelved this heavy-duty media beauty some years ago, as it lacked BlueTooth. Instead, it works across WiFi only, interfacing with devices on the same broadband connection. Smaller,  more portable Bluetooth speakers just seemed less cumbersome and easier to connect to now and again.

But what has this to do with language learning?

technically magic little things

Well, the SoundTouch has a special magic trick: six chunky preset buttons sitting on the top of its hefty frame. Once paired with your device, you can tune these to Spotify playlists or world radio stations of your choice. And, after that, you don’t even need your device to be connected to play them. Just tap a preset button and it bursts into life.

I put these to great use all those years ago, when the machine was shiny and new. I tuned three of the presets to foreign language music playlists on my Spotify account. The other three, I pointed at various radio station live feeds from countries of study. Then, whenever the mood took me, I could immerse myself in the target language at the touch of a button, no fuss at all.

How could I have forgotten about this wonderful piece of equipment?

Needless to say, it is sitting proudly in the living room again. This time round, it is primed with two foreign music playlists, and four radio stations: NRK P2 (Norwegian), RÚV Rás 1 (Icelandic), NDR Info (German) and Polskie Radio 24 (Polish). Instant immersion at a tap. And as always, the quicker and easier a language learning habit is to implement, the more I do it. It doesn’t get much quicker and easier than button-pushing.

What’s more, it has become a valuable portal to a global village while travel is shut down. If you are struggling with your big world suddenly feeling very small and restricted, you can take advantage of this remedy without fancy equipment. Even placing the link to a free radio app on the first screen of your phone will make the world feel a little closer.

Tidy little things

Bringing objects of love and fascination closer is a recurring theme. Not only forgotten overseas sounds, but long-missed books resurfaced during these long, quiet evenings.

The aim of the exercise was to move the books from my most active language learning / maintenance projects to sit right next to my desk for easier access. This was no mean feat; thanks to a rather hectic peripatetic lifestyle pre-shutdown, there was quite a bit of disorder to tackle.

The resulting bookshelf rummage was a revelation. Sometimes we forget how lucky we are, how much we have. From the depths of obscurity, I plucked a wealth of beautiful books that had almost entirely slipped my mind. Not defunct old tomes, but materials worth going over again (or for the first time, in some cases – the shame of it).

Treasured books are indeed some of the very best little things.

A picture of some of my language books, organised neatly on shelves.

Is there anything more satisfying than reorganising your home library?

Talking of serendipity, as I sit here writing this listening to NRK P2, my favourite Norwegian language programme, Språkteigen, pops on unexpectedly. I always listen to this as a podcast, never on broadcast radio. It feels somehow more special now. All the little things in their rightful place again; the language gods are happy.

What have you rediscovered in lockdown from your language learning past? Let us know in the comments!

Jars of jam. Image by freeimages.com.

Language Jam on Ukrainian Toast

What did you have for breakfast this morning? For me, it was a large dollop of Ukrainian jam on toast. I know, that makes two weeks in a row that I’ve written about food. But this time, it was purely food for the brain and polyglot soul, as it was my very first #LangJam.

My Language Jam language reveal, showing Ukrainian as the randomly selected language.

My Language Jam mission: Ukrainian

My mission: 35-million-speakers-strong Ukrainian. It was quite an inspired random choice on Language Jam’s part. I spent some years studying Russian a while back, and Polish is a major active project for me now. So it seemed very apt to check out this fascinating bridge between hotspots on my language map!

Duolingo = lazy language jam?

First off, I must admit that I maybe failed to match the verve of some friends and colleagues. I remain utterly impressed at the reams and reams of notes some fellow jammers have been making. Just look at this.

Instead, I focused on Duolingo as my main resource, with Wikipedia and Wiktionary filling in the background gaps.

I chose to use Duolingo not just because it was the easy, lazy choice. (It does just happen that it is, though.) I made the choice chiefly because I love the way courses usually introduce you to basic nouns and simple verb phrases at first. Instead of the usual hackneyed ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ and ‘goodbye’ phrases, you get a better picture of how the language works straight off. By the end of it, you end up with a mini dictionary in the mind – a great foundation to continue more serious study if the mood takes you.

Also, if you wind up doing several Duolingo courses, you can start to spot patterns between languages, since the first words taught are largely the same (people and food nouns and such like). It paints a nice picture of how cognates differ between them, and how sounds with the same proto-roots came to be articulated differently and so on.

It builds a kind of etymological overview of languages, and etymology is a big way into languages for me.

Duolingo Ukrainian – how does it measure up?

Whenever I start a new Duolingo course, it’s a fascinating opportunity to compare how the different language options measure up against each other. Ukrainian turned out to have some nice surprises.

Although I know the Cyrillic alphabet very well from Russian studies, I loved the facility to type transliterated, Roman alphabet answers in the absence of a Ukrainian keyboard layout. Cheating? Perhaps a little. But if you are just dipping a toe in, it allows to you start running in the language very quickly.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo. Maybe cheating a little, but so convenient if you are just after a taster!

The recordings could perhaps do with a little TLC in the Ukrainian section. That said, the voices are bright, clear and cheery. What more could you ask for, really?

And the trusty Duolingo approach of basic, stock words and simple sentences was in full force. Within the first couple of lessons you get a sense of basic sentence structure and some initial grammatical concepts like plural formation. In fact, the course reminds me a little of the excellent Polish course which I golded up last year. Thumbs up!

Making connections

As for the Ukrainian language itself, it was as expected. It turns out to be a goldmine of intrigue for someone with experience of both Polish and Russian. Admittedly, I was left with lots of questions. Where, for example, did the /v/ sound creep in from in the words for ‘he’ and ‘she’, він and вона? Polish has the v-less on/ona and Russian он/она (on/ona).

And the surprises kept coming. What happened to make the vowel in Ukrainian хліб, сіль, їсти (chlib, sil’, isty – bread, salt, eat) so different to Polish (chleb, sól, jeść) and Russian (хлеб, соль, есть – chleb, sol’, yest’)? Similarly, ‘city’ is місто – compare Polish miasto, and ‘horse’ is кінь (Polish koń). The word for ‘cat’ is кіт versus Polish kot. That ‘і’ pops up everywhere, and gives the sound of Ukrainian a very distinct, endearing flavour to an ear attuned to the other two.

Add to this special mix a tendency to have softer-sounding, fricatives in initial position where Polish has hard ones, and you start to collate a list of tell-tale signs to listen out for when discerning Ukrainian from its neighbouring Slavic languages. For example, compare Ukrainian це, хто (tse, chto) to Polish to, kto (it, who). Sometimes, building this skill of telling what a language is from its sound shape, even if you don’t speak it, is almost as socially useful as knowing one or two basic phrases.

For me, Language Jam has been a treat just for these comparative adventures. It widens the mental map of how words vary across space. Sometimes, as with Spanish and Portuguese, you can learn certain sound relations and ‘convert’ your knowledge of one into the other. At first study, it seems that Polish and Ukrainian are not quite close enough to do that, thanks to a greater number of vocabulary differences. For ‘animal’, say, Polish uses zwierzę, but Ukrainian тварина (tvaryna), etymologically completely different. But the ‘conversion rules’ at work here are certainly enough to act as a hook when learning one from the other.

Spare parts

When you view a group of related languages together like this, it can almost be like seeing machines that have been put together from a big bucket of parts. Each machine produces the same results in similar ways, but not always using exactly the same pieces.

For example, two Proto-Slavic roots for ‘to see’ have been reconstructed: *vìděti and *obačiti. You could consider these two different spare parts for the notion of ‘seeing’ when we build our Slavic language machines. Polish uses both of them in different aspectual parts, with widzieć (imperfective) and zobaczyć (perfective). Ukrainian uses a cognate of the latter for both perfective and imperfective (бачити / побачити – bachyty / pobachyty). Russian, on the other hand, uses the former for both (видеть / увидеть – vidyet’ / uvidyet’).

Ukrainian, geographically placed as it is, variously uses pieces with a sometimes more ‘Polish’ and sometimes more ‘Russian’ twist. ‘To work’, for example, is працювати (pratsuvati), akin to Polish pracować. On the other hand, Russian goes with работать (rabotat’).

And the ‘spare parts’ idea works within words at the syllable level too, and not just with whole roots. As a case in point, I just love the variations on the word ‘bear’ across the three languages. It seems like each one concocted a different flavour from the same syllable soup. We have Polish niedźwiedź, Ukrainian ведмідь (vedmid’) and Russian медведь (myedvyed’). Possibly the sweetest triplet of cognates ever. They sound like characters from a folk tale!

The stuff I excitedly share here, as if it were some kind of novel discovery, is undoubtedly elementary par for the course for students of Slavic Linguistics 101. But that has been the beauty of using Language Jam as a comparative introduction – exploring and deducing these things in isolation, all by myself. And spotting those relationships and connections is uniquely rewarding as a language lover.

Goal achieved? You’re jam right

These are just a few observations after my very brief exposure to the beautiful and fascinating Ukrainian language over the weekend. The experience has given me a little of that comparative scaffolding for Slavic that has already helped me get a grip on the Germanic languages. And in particular, it has broadened my experience of how phonologies diverge over time and place. For those reasons alone, it has been a truly enriching exercise, and another wave of the flag in support of endless dabbling.

Of course, with just a weekend to jam, the aim was never really to gain any degree of functional fluency. Instead, I was hoping to learn a little about the language, along with a handy couple of words to impress Ukrainians with should I ever bump into some. On that score, it is goal achieved. That said, the little I have learnt would serve as a fantastic springboard if I come to study the language again in the future.

I hope these wide-eyed dabbler notes have given other Ukrainian newbies a taste of the language, aroused the curiosity of speakers and learners of other Slavic languages, and prompted others to check out the fantastic Language Jam.

As far as conserves go, it was pretty sweet.

A picture of a freshly cooked chocolate brownie. Image from freeimages.com.

Baking up a distraction

Such a thoroughly  strange week draws to a close. The first of many weeks, no doubt, by the end of which strange will be normal. After the first run of stay-at-home social distancing, I expected to have blitzed my languages. Instead, what have I been spending my excess time on? Baking. Yes, consuming home-made cake instead of grammars. What sort of procrastinating distraction is this?

A simple sponge cake on a plate with a blue rim pattern

Cake by Rich – it doesn’t look much, but it was mighty tasty.

A bit out of the blue, too. A long-time lover of fast food conveniences, I was as surprised as anyone to find myself whisking and whirling in the kitchen. But then, strange things happen in strange times.

I guess that in unusual, stressful periods, we reach out for ways to feel in control. Given the scare stories in the media on supermarket supply lately, cooking from scratch has seemed a good way to feel in command of my personal food chain. That makes baking quite a useful distraction, actually. And, after all, beyond the languages, cooking is one thing I decided I could do with spending more time on in terms of self-improvement during these isolated weeks.

But could it be… well, a bit more languagey?

A cultural distraction

As ever, the online polyglot community came good. For some reason, baking and languages intersect quite neatly for a lot of my friends and colleagues on social media. In fact, I am the one who is late to the party; many have been sharing baking pics for as long as I have followed them, their culinary posts nestling surprisingly comfortably amongst the motivational language learning anecdotes.

And why not? Food is a cultural journey in itself. Instagram attests to the appetite for food stories from trips overseas. If anything, the connection had been staring me in the face for years. One of the biggest treats of exploring somewhere new is, for me, the food. While the planes are grounded and the borders are closed, I will really miss that.

Or maybe, I don’t have to. Within minutes of proudly sharing my tasty (but rather flat) sponge cake creation on Twitter, I had a recipe for Scandi-bread (in Swedish, joy!) and directions for Polish egg bread in my DMs. Yum.

Now this I can see myself incorporating into my language learning regime. Baking – and eating – my way through the cultural landscape of my target languages.

Cake is the spice of life

Variety, of course, is something to strive for in both language learning and everyday life. And it has rarely felt as important to follow that rule as now.

And that leads me excitedly (and rather unsubtly) on to #LangJam! No, not cake filling, but my first time taking part in the annual surprise language dabbling weekend. As well as the international baking, this seemed like a great way to inject a bit more sugar and spice into my routine.

As for the flavour, the great jam sorting hat gave me Ukrainian for my first taste. Now, where are those recipes for yabluchnyk?

Have you rustled up your own language learning / baking crossovers? Any recipes you’d recommend? Please share in the comments!

A picture of a window taken from inside. Two houseplants sit in pots on the windowsill. Isolation needn't be limiting. Picture from freeimages.com

Learner Isolation : Rethinking Language Strategies in Difficult Times

What a week. It is no longer a distant item on the evening news. Everybody is starting to feel the impact of Covid-19 containment and delay measures. And as language learning can be such a social activity, the isolation blues are beginning to bite.

Wherever you are in the world, you are probably feeling the repercussions, too. For me, it has been a week of setbacks to meet with a resigned, accepting and understanding shrug. Isolation measures to deal with the pandemic have deflated my little social learning bubble, and there is little to do but sit tight.

Isolation nation

The crunch came on Friday. After a fair bit of deliberation, I cancelled a long-anticipated language practice mini-mission to Norway, as the country started to close its borders. For one thing, it seemed wrong to fly in the middle of such uncertainty. For another, the last thing I wanted was to burden another country’s system as the demand on resources was hotting up.

It was a close call. I was due to fly the very day the army was later deployed to assist in turning back – or quarantining – foreign national arrivals at Gardermoen airport. Thank heavens for small mercies – that would not have been a pleasant situation to get caught up in.

That evening, news – not completely unexpected by now – arrived to confirm that our beloved Gaelic classes at Edinburgh Uni, for this and the next term, are off. Our informal Gaelic chat pub group will go the same way, too. Given the pattern, I am bracing myself for a series of language conference cancellations over the next couple of weeks. Sad, but necessary.

Bit by bit, these extraordinary circumstances are dismantling the familiar and the normal.

Perspective – but continued self-care

Now we face an indeterminate period of isolation, and a radically different world – at least for the time being. It is now getting harder and harder to plan to visit our target language countries in a world we had grown used to being so easy to navigate. Even the cultural institutions we study as language learners and budding travellers, like the Norwegian hytte tradition, are facing suspension of uncertain length.

Our worlds suddenly feel a lot smaller.

But a bit of perspective here: these are, in the grand scheme, minor inconveniences. All these small sacrifices are for the greater good, since there are much more important things at stake than learning timetables. They are infinitesimally insignificant in the face of a serious global health crisis. 

But in frightening times, we all reach for what gives us comfort. When global events threaten these comforts, it leaves us feeling helpless and stressed. And there is no shame in missing the things that make us feel better, or even feeling angry that they are taken away.

Don’t feel guilty. In difficult times, we need to exercise the self-care to look after our emotional and intellectual needs, as well as the physical.

The time is right

Fortunately, there has really never been a better prepared age for the learning community to overcome these challenges of isolation. Namely, for the first time in human history, social meet-ups are not bound to a single space, thanks to social media.

For a start, we have the fantastic online polyglot community. Much of the interaction here takes place over Twitter, and it has been a particularly replenishing waterhole of solace and comfort these past weeks. I am part of a fantastic circle of friends and fellow aficionados there, and now that network is proving invaluable.

We will see online learning communities and tuition exchanges really come into their own now, too. Sites like iTalki are a perfect fit for these times. Social interaction with a native speaker has never been easier.

And the forced, slower pace of life, without the hectic to-and-fro, has an added benefit. Now, I have more evenings freed from the mega-commute, ready to Skype teachers without the time pressures of cramming them in here and there. Who knows – I might even finally get round to giving remote EFL teaching a go.

That’s a lot of extra time not spent on trains for me, by the way. At least some of that will be dedicated to discovering more nifty Excel tricks too!

Becoming better people

And what about all those other goals and aspirations beyond language learning? As for me, it means doing something I have intended to do for an age: cooking more from scratch. A former meal deal addict, I am now reaching for the cupboard a lot more. That beats nipping out to Boots or Tesco for a pack of sandwiches every lunchtime.

Finally – and perhaps most importantly – the pandemic is a reminder that each of us is one amongst many. This is a chance to reach out to the people around us, ask how they are doing, see if they need our help. In so many ways beyond language learning, this difficult experience can make us better people.

We have the tools and the enthusiasm to succeed in the face of challenge. However your everyday may change, you can flourish in the new normal. 

A book lying open with its pages fluttering. Image from freeimages.com.

Audible Again : Rediscovering Lost Love

Don’t you love a good online subscription? Netflix, Evernote, Amazon Prime – these language learner-friendly platforms have earned their monthly fee many times over for me. But I also love good value, and I won’t let myself to sign up for a new monthly service until I’m absolutely sure I’ll make the most of it. And I have to admit, I deliberated long and hard over signing back up to Audible this month.

Many moons ago, I was a contented lover of the audiobooks behemoth. But after exhausting the list of pop science and psych books I usually plumped for, it all started to feel a bit samey. My passion for the platform waned, and I eventually cancelled.

Lost that loving feeling

The problem was simply that we had grown apart. Our interests were no longer a good match. Pop-sci could only take me so far. Truly, my heart was looking to plug a big, language-learning sized hole. There was a lack of polyglot love.

This relationship just wasn’t going to work any more.

That was, until our paths crossed again, years later, and I felt a little of that former affection stirring my curiosity. So often it happens this way when it comes to serendipitous encounters with forgotten former flames.

It was searching for the audio version of Olly Richard’s Short Stories in Icelandic that Audible popped up, beaming and enthusiastic. A free first month with two free credits, with the option to cancel any time. What a no-brainier – by signing back up, I won what I sought for nothing. If, after that, it looked like things were not meant to be, I could just ride back off into the sunset.

Audible Actually

This was my chance. Test the water, no commitments on either side. A friendly catch-up over coffee, if you will, to see where the land lay. Could that flame of passion reignite, and bring a happy ending to this private screening of Audible Actually?

Spoiler alert: the script has a happy ending. Audible had changed. The spark was back!

Not only are all of Olly Richard’s short stories volumes available in native speaker narration (some not quite out yet at the time of writing). But there is a veritable treasure of books from other European countries too, available in the original language.

In fact, there is so much material that the advanced search options now include a language setting, so you can hone in on your specific love interests and language passions. French, German and Spanish turn out to be particularly prolific languages of love for Audible nowadays.

Clandestine interests

Here’s the thing: not all of the platform’s language-learning cards are on display at first glance. Like all things love, there is a little mystery. Namely, not all the audiobook languages appear in the search settings list.

Take Norwegian. While Danish sits happily and boldly in the menu, lovingly representing Scandinavia, I was disappointed to see norsk missed off the menu. But a little search on a Norwegian title threw up some results. Phew – we were still compatible!

This is the case with the Norwegian versions of the Harry Potter books. They are all there – you just have to find the titles before searching. Those are easy enough to find on Wikipedia, amongst other places. Lovers should never have secrets – but sometimes you do have to ask the right questions.

Happy endings

Everybody loves a happy ending, don’t they? I have professed my commitment and will be hanging around long beyond my free trial.

But there is more than enough love to go round for everyone. Why not have an on-the-house nose around the library yourself? You never know what might grab your heart.

Are you working the audiobook circuit as a language lover? What gems have you discovered recently?

Boxsets of DVDs on a shelf

New joy from old DVDs : The resources under our noses

Do you ever get the resource itch? That hankering for new books, DVDs and other resources in your target language, however many are still unfinished on your shelves?

Well, I get this a lot. And lately, it has been particularly chronic.

It was pondering over ordering the (quite heftily priced) Game of Thrones auf Deutsch that I realised it. I still have a ton of engaging, foreign language learning resources under my nose. They have been lying, forgotten for years, on my shelves of old DVDs.

A treasure of DVDs

It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. Back in the day when DVDs were still the thing, before Netflix rendered them all a bit quaint, I used to go out of my way to choose boxsets with interesting language options.

And often, production companies would be quite generous with the options. They overloaded those discs with as many dubbed versions as possible, maximising their market appeal.

The back of a boxset of DVDs showing the different language soundtracks available.

DVDs can offer a generous helping of foreign language soundtracks.

It was building up to an iTalki conversation session this week that I started digging through my old collection for some German maintenance material. I had forgotten what a wealth of it there already was, hiding on my shelves.

But there’s more. Revisiting it all, years after they first caught my eye (and wallet), there were plenty of nice surprises. Some of those soundtracks and subtitle languages weren’t on my radar at all the first time round. Now, I was discovering all sorts of things that past Rich hadn’t a clue would be of interest to future Rich.

Needless to say, I’ve spent a good chunk of time this week enjoying past seasons of Medium in German, with Norwegian subtitles. It’s definitely saved my bank balance – although German Game of Thrones still sits happily on my wish list!

Old school benefits

In these days of podcasts and foreign language streaming on Netflix, the idea of DVDs can seem a bit, well, old school. But chances are you have a lot of this material to hand, even if it lies stored away in attics and cupboards.

And more often than not, if you’re like me, there is still a lot of use to be had from it. There is no way that I ever watched all those episodes of Medium in every language and subtitle option available. Waste not, want not!

Lost… again

There’s also something warming about getting lost again in series you used to love, rediscovering them through different voices and tongues. Consuming material that fills me with joy, rather than what I feel I ought to consume, was a language learning epiphany. There’s little that speaks to the heart more than a beloved old TV series you forked money out to own.

Of course, you know the (not uncontroversial) ending to Lost now… But just look at all the hidden twists, secret details and Easter eggs there are to spot when you go back to those episodes.

And that’s not to mention the powerful motivator that nostalgia can be when selecting language learning resources.

Ethical economy

If your shelves are wanting, then fear not. Old DVDs also represent a route for buying fresh resources more ethically, too. Charity shops are heaving with old films and TV series, often for as little as 50p a pop. Buying second hand breathes new life into old materials that might otherwise be destined for the dump.

And after you’ve eked the most out of your old favourites, consider paying the benefits forward. Donate them to a good cause, or set up a sharing circle with other language learner friends. We can create a whole sub-economy in recycled, dubbed classics!

Give your old DVDs some language learning love. What have you rediscovered lately?

Accent - sometimes you can be too good! Image by Betty Miller from FreeImages.com

Great accent, shame about the rest!

How is your accent in the language you’re learning? I’m pretty pleased with mine. In fact, I think it might be a little too good.

Before the eye-rolling starts, let me explain. This isn’t an embarrassing lapse in modesty and perspective. The fact is, accent is one of the things I really strive to perfect very early on in my learning. The trouble is, a very good accent can give a false impression of general overall proficiency, even if you’re not quite there yet.

There’s Norway you’re Norwegian…

It’s something that has cropped up plenty of times in my language adventures. This weekend, I spent a couple of nights in lovely Trondheim, Norway. Now, my Norwegian isn’t bad at all. It’s one of the languages I immerse myself in most, watching Norwegian TV, getting my news from Norwegian sources and reading fiction in Norwegian. I’d say I hover around a B1/2 – an achievement I’m proud of and not bad for someone who doesn’t live in the country.

That said, Norwegian is a patchwork of sometimes vastly different dialects. I don’t always cope with that diversity, especially when I come across a new variety. And Trøndersk, of which Trondheim’s dialect is a prime example, is particularly unique.

The sticking point is this: I have worked on getting a solid Oslo pronunciation under my belt. Because of that, when I rattle off a request in a hotel or shop situation, I sound like I have a pretty solid grasp of a colloquial, spoken variety of the language. When I get the reply in full-on local dialect, I get that gut-turning feeling of the rug being pulled from under my feet.

Yes, who hasn’t felt that when learning a language? But when you make a special effort to sound like a native, it can compound the problem.

Great accent – shame about the listening skills!

Language heptathletes

This is, of course, the nature of language learning. It is a multi-skill discipline. In effect, we are all heptathletes competing across reading, writing, speaking, listening and other combined events at our own linguistic Olympics. Just like a heptathlon, every one of us performs differently across those skills. Accent is one of those areas that some struggle with, but others take to straight away.

Focusing on accent early on – as your special event, so to speak – is no bad thing by any means. For many of us, it is part of the fun of language learning. It’s all about trying to pass, attempting to shed the baggage of your first language background, trying on a different culture for size, the giddy thrill of let’s pretend. A great accent means hearing the sounds of a different place, a different people, a different world leave your lips. For me, it’s one of the most exciting parts of learning a language.

Maybe you are a natural mimic and love to imitate foreign language sounds from the get-go. It could be, like me, that you are fascinated by dialects and accents as a route to the authentic heart and soul of a target language culture. Perhaps you’ve worked hard on accent-improving techniques like shadowing.

But an accent-heavy focus might leave you scrambling to keep up your first, amazing impressions when you speak to locals abroad. The problem is partly one of over-rehearsal. As actors will confirm, you can prepare your character to death. You know your part so rigidly that there is zero room for flexibility. Learning to speak your part too convincingly can leave you little time to focus on being prepared for the unpreparable.

The answer? Keep loving accent and pronunciation work, but introduce some systematic wider focus into your study to redress the imbalance.

Perfect accent – with a side of syntax

The best kind of resources for skill-balancing are those that take a blended approach. They provide plenty of speech modelling to keep our accent ambitions fulfilled. But they also feature content that trains variable syntax alongside accent.

Personally, I find mass sentence methods like Glossika incredibly helpful. Glossika drills native-speed pronunciation through a bank of hundreds of well-formed, colloquial sentences. Crucially, it includes stylistic variants on a theme that might trip you up in natural speech. The Scottish Gaelic version, for example, exposes you to not only “càit a bheil …?” (where is …) but also the shortened, more colloquial form “cà’il …?” amongst other alternatives.

For an even tighter focus on listening skills, it pays to keep your ear to the ground for new techniques. For a start, there is some excellent advice on listening coming from language teachers in schools, so it pays to keep up-to-date with what is going on in the teacher circuit. Many of their confidence-improving techniques for young students are as applicable to us as individual learners.

Let it go…

Finally – and this might be the most drastic and hard-to-swallow piece of advice for all who love working on their accent – is to deliberately try not to be so impressive. Let a little of your true self colour how you speak a foreign language. Cultivate a ‘learner accent’.

If you want to keep the fun stakes high, maybe even try a different foreign accent within your language – German with a French accent, anyone? Have fun being non-native! It’s still an accent, right?

What are your experiences with accent training in language learning? Let us know in the comments!

Listening can be one of the most challenging skills in a foreign language. Image from freeimages.com.

The Listening Monster: Language teacher tips for taking the sting out

Same objectives, different worlds – the polyglot and school classroom teaching communities strive for identical goals, but it often feels like they are leagues apart. It’s a perfect match waiting to be realised, as both have so much to learn from one another.

That’s why it’s always a hugely positive eye-opener when I attend teacher conferences. I’m no longer a classroom teacher myself, but I’m lucky enough to remain part of that world through my work creating language resources for schools. And as a lone ranger language learner in my free time, there are always lots of tips for tweaking my own study. This year’s #TeachLang conference was no exception, with a focus on that notoriously challenge foreign language skill, listening.

Listening: The dreaded monster

It’s no secret that listening – and actually comprehending – is one of the big, bad, dreaded monsters of language learning, whether in the classroom or for independent learners. Perhaps like me, you’ve given podcasts a go in a language you’re working on, only to feel disillusioned at how little you understand. Or maybe you feel flummoxed by those oh-so-fast responses by native speakers when travelling.  Either way, listening can be flippin’ hard.

Teachers know this only too well. It can be a challenge to keep students feeling confident with such an overwhelming, brainpower-intensive task. Thankfully, there were some excellent nuggets of classroom wisdom on offer at the conference.

Martine Pillette in particular summed up the right initial approach to listening with her focus on tuning down the pressure to get everything at once. In short: you can get a lot from authentic listening resources without understanding every single word. A shame nobody told that to my inner critic years ago!

In this kinder-to-yourself method, you focus on mini-tasks at more abstracted levels instead of word-for-word comprehension straight away. For example, start by simply trying to identify the general topic of a segment. Listen out for individual words to note down, rather than grasp whole sentences. In essence, train yourself to catch gist. This kind of focused listening reminds me a lot of Benny Lewis’ active method for consuming podcasts.

Prediction exercises

Dovetailing into that was a lovely segment from Jennifer Wozniak around the use of prediction in listening exercises. Key to the predictive approach is preparation. With some basic knowledge of what the listening text is about, which words do you expect to come up?

Take a podcast on technology in Icelandic, for example. You might figure that the words tölva (computer), farsími (mobile phone) and gagnvirkur (interactive) are probable candidates for inclusion. Before listening, note them down – look them up in a dictionary if needed – and see how many of them come up on your first pass. You can tick them off, bingo-style, as you hear them. How many did you get?

Jennifer Wozniak talking at the Linguascope #TeachLang Teach Languages conference, February 2020

Jennifer Wozniak talking at the Linguascope #TeachLang Teach Languages conference, February 2020

These are just a couple of the fantastic classroom techniques that teachers are sharing to take stress out of listening. They hardly scratch the surface, of course, and it’s well worth a rummage in live stream archive of the Linguascope Facebook page to see what else a bit of back-to-school can do for us.

As for me, I’m just off to play some Icelandic listening bingo. Wish me luck!

What techniques do you use to cope with listening practice in your foreign languages? Let us know in the comments!

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming to fluency – language immersion in the Apple Arcade

Nothing like a bit of fun and games, is there? Of course, for most of us, language learning is the fun and games. But what if we could turbocharge that a little? I’d been mulling over the idea of getting back into gaming as a way to unwind of late. As if right on cue, Apple’s email invite to its new mobile games subscription, Apple Arcade, popped up in my inbox.

I used to love gaming as a kid, from my early VIC-20 days to my beloved Commodore 64. But for one reason or another – maybe with the disillusioning burden of real, adult life – I let that fun fall by the wayside. Nowadays, I’m more likely to be making games than playing them. Time was ripe to turn the tables.

Naturally, everything in my life has to involve language learning in some form or other. So it’s handy that many contemporary apps and games adhere to localisation standards which provide multiple translations. There is a crossover world out there just waiting for people like us!

Gaming genres for learners

The trick to learning through playing is to find gaming genres that contain copious amounts of text. You might instinctively start searching for word puzzle games, but they tend to lack more complex, sentence level material.

It turns out that quest-style role-playing games (RPGs), where you explore worlds and interact with characters, are ideal. The language is often in the form of colloquial dialogues with everyday, natural speech. Many of them are also full of fun, fantasy vocabulary, which goes down a treat if you enjoy foreign language Harry Potter books and the like.

And luckily, Apple Arcade features a lot of them.

Many of the platform’s quest games are available in more than ten languages, including the ‘biggies’, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Korean and Spanish. There is one caveat: usually, only the text is available in translation, rather than the full spoken audio dialogue. This makes gaming language practice more of a reading comprehension activity than anything else. But that’s incredibly useful in its own right, akin to watching Netflix in English with foreign language subtitles. You can always turn the English dialogue sound down too, if it distracts.

So what have I been playing this week?

CAT QUEST II

For my first outing into lingua-gaming, I plumped for the comic-style Cat Quest II by Singaporean indie outfit The Gentlebros. Love cats and dogs? No problem, as you can play as both in this cutesy RPG. The eye-catching graphics reminded me a lot of the bold, brash worlds I used to explore in arcade games like Pac-Land as a kid, making this title hard to resist. Download, boot up and switch to German: I’m ready to play.

Kudos to the developers for the delightful German translation. It avoids being the Google Translate hatchet job you might expect from a studio with less cash to splash than one of the behemoth firms. A heap of care and attention has gone into it, including cute, native play-on-words and puns for the character names. Even the quirky place names on the maps have been translated!

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Cat Quest II for the iPad on Apple Arcade

A spot of shopping in German: Cat Quest II on Apple Arcade

YAGA

What grabbed me most about Yaga is its basis in Slavic folklore. It has an authentic-sounding, haunting soundtrack to match. Not only that, but – rather appropriately – it is also one of the few games available in Polish.

You play the hapless, one-armed blacksmith Ivan, desperate to change his luck. The point-and-click, adaptive dialogue is a fun and immersive way to practise any one of an impressive fifteen languages.

Gaming for language learners: Yaga for iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Yaga on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Yaga for iPad on Apple Arcade

Another friendly chat in Yaga on Apple Arcade

MOSAIC

For lovers of dystopian noir, Mosaic is a bit of a treat. Dark, moody and more than a little bit trippy, it is also one of the few games offering a Norwegian Bokmål translation.

The game story takes place in a rich point-and-click environment where you play our beleaguered everyday anti-hero. But perhaps more uniquely, the exploration of his world also makes use of several self-contained games-within-a-game. Understanding the target language instructions is key to getting anywhere with these.

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic for iPad on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic on Apple Arcade

Gaming for language learners: Mosaic for iPad on Apple Arcade

In-game puzzing på norsk within Mosaic on Apple Arcade

Gaming for All

After playing my way through a few of these, one thing strikes me: it’s so easy to get started. Perhaps one of the best things about mobile gaming as a learning tool is this accessibility. Devices are so ubiquitous that there is no need to fork out for a console as well.

Device-based gaming also works out pretty cheaply, especially with platforms like Apple Arcade being subscription-based. For a flat monthly fee, you get access to unlimited games. Not only that, but Apple are pushing new games to users all the time, keeping things nice and fresh. And although I’m a shameless Apple boy myself (could you tell?), Android users can enjoy similar features with Google Play Pass.

Admittedly, you do need a certain level of competence in the language already in order to get the most out of it. Quest-based games seem a good fit for upper beginner / intermediate learners, as well as maintainers. That said, the slower pace of some of these types of game means that you have time to pause and look up unfamiliar material.

All in all, for mindful escapism with a dash of language practice, mobile gaming is proving hard to beat. It’s another very welcome way to unwind, capturing a bit of that youthful gaming fun I lost and flexing my lingua-muscles at the same time.

Are you a language learning mobile gamer? Do you have any recommendations for top titles? Please share them in the comments!

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Excel for Polyglots: Comparative audits to keep languages in sync

Duolingo, Memrise, Anki, Microsoft Excel. Huh, wait – Excel? How is that a language learning app?

Well, the Office software has some handy features that just happen to be right up our street as language learners. Namely, the ability to curate and administer lists in table form. And it just happens that this can be particularly useful if you learn more than one language.

One source of frustration as a polyglot learner is the discrepancy of vocabulary level between languages. This can be most obvious with fairly close language pairs. For instance, when practising Icelandic, I often realise that I know a term in Norwegian – but not the language I am trying to speak.

So how best to address these discrepancies?

Language auditing

Getting into the habit of performing a regular language audit, such a revisiting beginner materials is a good strategy for any learner. But one particularly powerful method for multi-language learners is the comparative audit.

In short, a comparative audit is simply taking stock of which words you know in one language, but not the other.

At the very early stages of learning a language, this can be as easy as scanning down a list. But when you get to the point of having hundreds and hundreds of words in your vocab store, the task is mammoth.

Enter Excel, data wizard!

Microsoft Excel and VLOOKUP

Most of us will have used Excel or another spreadsheet program at some point. But like me, you might not have gone beyond basic numerical information and a few simple sum functions.

It turns out that Excel is pretty good at handling textual data too. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yes, vocabulary lists! And it has a special function, VLOOKUP, which allows you to compare data between two tables. Sounds just perfect for our comparative audit.

Here’s how to enlist Excel to your polyglot cause in a few simple(-ish) steps.

Step 1: Port your data into Excel

First things first – you have to get your vocabulary data into Excel. The easiest way is to export from your program of choice as a CSV (comma-separated values) or tab-delimited text file. If you use Anki, this is as easy as heading to File > Export and selecting ‘Notes in Plain Text (*.txt).

Ensure that you only export the basic data and no media or tags. Ideally, you should just be exporting a word and definition / translation field. My Norwegian and Icelandic decks, for example, are populated by vocab notes with an English and Target Language field.

Export a separate file for each of the two languages you want to compare. In my case, I end up with two files, norwegian.txt and icelandic.txt.

Exporting data from Anki

Exporting data from Anki

Step 2: Import your vocab into Excel

In Microsoft Excel, create a fresh spreadsheet document, and head to File > Import. Select Text File, hit Import and locate your first exported vocabulary file from above. To preserve accented characters in our Anki list, select Unicode (UTF-8) as the File origin.

Importing vocabulary into Excel

Importing vocabulary into Excel – note that ‘Unicode (UTF-8)’ has been selected as the file origin to make sure accented characters are handled correctly.

Create a second sheet in the same document, and import your other list of vocabulary into that. You should now have a two-sheet spreadsheet document, each sheet showing a list of words in a different language. For clarity, make sure you name your sheets too. Simply double-click on the tab titles “Sheet 1” etc. to do that.

Step 3: Format your lists as tables

In each sheet, click and drag across the table to select your whole vocabulary list as a block. Now, click Format as Table in the Home section of the function ribbon / toolbar. It doesn’t really matter which style you use – I choose the colour I like best!

Once that’s done, change the new column headers to something more meaningful than the default values. I use English and Norwegian in my example below. One caveat – you need to have a column with the same title in both your tables for the VLOOKUP trick to work. Here, English will be my common column between Norwegian and Icelandic.

Vocabulary data formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel

My Norwegian vocabulary data formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel

Now, instantly, these is already more useful to us than static lists. Formatting as a table means you can use the column heading drop-downs to sort and filter your entries. Try it – sort alphabetically on the target language column. You’ve turned your data into a nifty dictionary! Not our primary goal, but a nice trick on the way.

Before we go on, it’s a good idea to name our tables so they are easy to refer to later. To do this, click anywhere in your table, then switch to the Table tab in the ribbon / toolbar. The simpler, the better – below, I just call mine Icelandic.

Naming a table in Excel

Naming a table in Excel

But now it’s the turn of our star, VLOOKUP. This is where the real magic happens.

Step 4: Adding a comparative column

Click on the target language column header of your second table and copy it (CTRL + C). Now, go to your first table, select the cell next to the target language column header (C1 in my example), and paste (CTRL + V). It should add a blank new column within that table. Let’s fill it up!

In the first cell under that new column header, we type in our VLOOKUP formula. This will depend on what you have named your tables and sheets, but mine looks like this:

=VLOOKUP([@English], Icelandic, 2, 0)

Let’s dissect that just now. The first item in the brackets is the column of the first table we’ll use at the lookup – the English entry. The second item, Icelandic, is the table we’ll look for a value in. Remember, we named that table a little earlier. The third item, 2, is the column number we’ll look for that item in, which is the target language column of the Icelandic table. Finally the fourth value, 0, is a flag to Excel that we want exact matches only.

If that boggles, simply start typing =VLOOKUP( in the cell. That calls up Excel’s formula hints and point-and-click formula building, which should help you tie things together accurately.

After doing that, something special happens – suddenly, the whole column is filled with entries. If the English term was found in the Icelandic table, the corresponding Icelandic word is pulled in. If not, we simply get #N/A.

A quick note if that doesn’t work immediately: check that the data type of the cells in that third column are set to format as General, not Text.

A cross-referencing table in Excel using VLOOKUP

Our first step in creating a cross-referencing table in Excel using VLOOKUP.

Not very tidy, is it? That #N/A is simply stating that the lookup resulted in nothing at all.

Step 5: Tying off the loose ends

We can make it all look better by wrapping it in another Excel formula, IFERROR. Change the formula in that first cell to:

=IFERROR(VLOOKUP([@English], Icelandic, 2, 0), "-")

This tells Excel to carry out our VLOOKUP function, but to return a dash if it results in an error (i.e., no data). Suddenly, it’s looking a lot neater.

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Now it is crystal clear where you know a word in one language but not the other. To make things even clearer, click the dropdown on that third column, and filter it to show just the dashed elements. There is your list of words to work on in the second language!

Filtering your vocabulary items in Excel.

Filtering your vocabulary items in Excel.

Alternatively, filter on everything but the dashes to revel in the wealth of words you know in both. Enjoy that moment of pride!

For reference, here’s an example Excel file comparing sample vocabulary in French and Spanish.

Where to go from here?

What you do next is up to you. But now, you have the data in your hands, and data is power: what you know, you can act on. Export the filtered list of gaps to work on learning missing vocabulary in any number of ways.

Clearly, you can take these techniques a lot further, too. Currently, the table only checks one way, such as Icelandic to Norwegian in my example. But you can experiment with the same techniques to create much more complex and comprehensive spreadsheets to interrogate both ways.

Lastly, I’ve used Microsoft Excel in this example, but the same functionality is available in other spreadsheet programs, too. The free alternative Google Sheets, for example, has its own VLOOKUP function that works in an almost identical manner. Play around with the tools available, and you can add that dull old spreadsheet package to your list of exciting, innovative language apps!

Have you given this trick a spin? Have any interesting and useful variations on it? Please share in the comments!