The Edinburgh Fringe is a great opportunity for language lovers to get some target language entertainment! Image from freeimages.com.

Laughs for Linguists : Polyglot Picks for Edinburgh Fringe 2019

The Edinburgh Fringe is back! And, in what has become a Polyglossic tradition, we have leafed through the flyers and brochures to compile our polyglot picks for #EdFringe 2019.

There is something on offer for every language aficionado, with culturally diverse shows spanning comedy, music and theatre. Some are performed in the target language, while others are in English, but featuring strong links with target languages of interest. Whether for some listening practice, or simply a bit of cultural exploration, there is plenty to keep polyglots and linguaphiles busy this August in Edinburgh.

French 🇫🇷

Surprisingly, the festival line-up is missing its usual Piaf and Brel content, usually a staple of the francophone side of the fest. Never fear, though: there are still a couple of Gallic gems on the list. Appropriately, a couple of them are even hosted at the Institut Français Écosse.

German 🇩🇪

  • Henning Wehn: Get On With It
    Festival favourite Henning Wehn, German Comedy Ambassador to the UK, is back with his quirky take on UK life through teutonic eyes. Expect quite a bit of reference to the B-word, naturally – one of the recurring themes running across successive recent fringes!
  • Franz and Marie : Woyzeck Retold
    This might catch your eye if you read German as a foreign language at university; Georg Büchner’s unfinished Woyzeck is a regular feature on first-year reading lists. Enjoy this fresh adaptation of a play with challenging – and still painfully relevant – themes.
  • The literary vein continues with Borchert – A Life. Aiming to bring the short-lived German writer to the attention of English-speaking audiences, the show highlights “a life worth knowing about“.
  • This year’s festival also sees several plays emerge dealing with various themes from 20th Century German history. Walls and Bridges brings to life a long-forgotten uprising of East German students in 1953. Meanwhile, The Good Scout dramatises a rather eyebrow-raising pre-war collaboration.
  • And where would we be without a good Lieder recital at the Edinburgh Fringe? Thankfully, Susan McNaught, Barbara Scott and Robert Duncan step up to that challenge, presenting Schubert and Wagner to festival-goers.

Italian 🇮🇹

  • Corde InCanto
    For a truly polyglot experience, give this Italian duo a whirl. As well as Italian arias, there are German Lieder and Spanish songs mixed into the musical menu.
  • Arlecchino Torn in Three
    Bilingual, family-friendly fun is the order of the day here. Blending Italian, English and musical accompaniment, the production brings the masked magic of Venice to the festival.
  • Me and the Mask – Commedia dell’Arte
    More hands-on, kid-friendly, masked fun, this time taking place at Edinburgh’s Italian Cultural Institute. Attending the show makes a great introduction to the centre, which is a valuable source of information on local events and courses.

Spanish 🇪🇸

  • Drunk Lion
    Drunk Lion is back!  Aptly for learners, this is an original play about an life-changing encounter with the Spanish language. And what’s more, it’s still one of the festival’s many free shows. That means there’s no excuse to miss it if you’re passing by the Newsroom Bar!  Incidentally, the venue is also a nice place to grab a drink and a bite to eat.
  • Sonia Aste : Made In Spain
    With a personable set exploring UK-Spanish connections, Sonia Aste shares her unique perspectives on our cultural touchpoints and differences. A dynamic and interactive approach ensures that this will make for a lively evening out!
  • As always, there is a broad choice for lovers of traditional Spanish guitar music and Flamenco. Highlights include Alba Flamenca, ¡Viva el Flamenco! and – particularly tempting if you have little ones to keep engaged – Flamenco for Kids!

Share your Edinburgh Fringe

Of course, this is a miniscule representation of the hundreds and hundreds of shows on offer. Apologies to all the wonderful shows we missed out. Perhaps some of the above will pique your interest if you are visiting Edinburgh this August. But if you attend a gem we overlooked, please share it with us in the comments!

To comb through the multiple offerings yourself and buy tickets online, visit https://tickets.edfringe.com/. And have a wonderful Edinburgh Fringe!

Dictionaries - a great fallback, but is it cheating? Image from freeimages.com

But is it cheating? Language support tools and polyglot pride

You’ve prepared for this moment. You’re about to walk up to the counter and order that coffee in the language you’ve been learning for months. But it’s the heat of the moment. You’re a bit nervous. What’s the polite way to ask for something again? Is it cheating to look it up?

These are times when the sheer availability of information blurs the line between achieving and cheating. Digital tools are challenging the notion of success across all education fields. So what exactly is cheating? And do we need to worry about it, as independent language learners?

Defining cheating

How we define cheating changes a lot according to circumstances. For example, during my high school language exams, the idea of taking along vocabulary support was a strict no-no. Students had to commit everything to memory. It was hard work, but we accepted it as a necessary slog.

So it was with a little envy that I learnt, some years later, that some exams boards were now allowing dictionaries in during the writing component. Dictionaries! They would have chucked us poor students straight out of the hall after even a whiff of a crib sheet or a glimpse of scribbled notes on a hand.

That said, there is some sense in allowing some brain-support tools into the exam environment. Learning how to use resources like dictionaries and verb tables is as much a part of language proficiency as the actual committing to memory, and more so than ever these days. We live in a world full of expert, digital help at the touch of a smartphone. Testing how students use their language knowledge and resourcefulness is, perhaps, a better way to gauge how they will cope in the real world.

Setting a high bar

Despite all this, there is a gleeful satisfaction in smashing the memory game. I suspect that there is a memory purist in many of us polyglot enthusiasts, setting the cheating bar pretty high. Who hasn’t felt a little fist-pump moment that time a perfectly formed phrase just trips off the tongue without a single prompt?

More importantly, no support tool is perfect. Maybe you have also given a knowing eye-roll when hearing that old, annoying chestnut about language learning being unnecessary in a world of Google Translate. Likewise, you have also probably spotted a couple of very iffy translations yourself when using it. Machine translation is getting good – but it’s not quite there yet.

The fact is that tech tools are incredibly powerful. But knowing how the language works and combining your own knowledge with their answers is exponentially more powerful. These platforms support – they do not replace – the expert linguist in us.

Parlour tricks for the everyday

Of course, improving memory to maestro levels is a noble goal in itself, and many have achieved fame on the back of that. Russian mnemonist Solomon Shereshevsky displayed some phenomenal recall skills that bought him to the attention of a public far beyond his home country.

A raft of pop science books and documentaries feted his seemingly superhuman abilities to remember items. In the 1950s, a decade obsessed with the rapid progress of humanity towards a perfected pinnacle, Shereshevsky ignited the question: are we born with super-memory, or can we develop it? As language learners, it’s something we would all love to know.

Well, the answer is encouraging: it seems that we can learn it. Memorisation expert Tony Buzan has been impressing amateur mnemonists for years with his books, crossing the divide between parlour trick and genuinely useful learning skill. He has even applied some of his mind-mapping memory techniques directly to language learning, and the results seem promising from the reviews.

Whether or not we call dictionary look-up cheating, getting these tricks under your belt is surely more rewarding than that reach-for-the-phone “I give up!” moment on a trip.

Aim high – but be kind to yourself

In short, there is no need to be too hard on yourself. Support tools help us through many a sticky situation. In fact, these tools can be invaluable during the learning process itself. Translation and dictionary sites can be systematically mined to make connections and expand your vocabulary from day one.

Still, perfect recall improvement techniques can help you use these tools less and less frequently in the wild. And managing that can be a rich source of pride at your abilities as a language learner.

Clontarf, Dublin: achievement is often about the journey, not the destination.

Achievement on our terms: language learning as the joy of exploration

If ambition drives you to excel in a field as (traditionally) academic as languages, chances are you are achievement-oriented. Striving for success – however we choose to measure it – is part and parcel of loving the polyglot craft. Achievement gives us a buzz.

As independent learners, however, we are free to define achievement however it works best for us. It’s something that occurred to me on a trip to Dublin this weekend, a break that prompted me to dip my now-and-again toe into the Irish language once more.

Strictly casual

You might have a similar relationship with one of your languages. Irish fascinates me. It is both somehow familiar, yet so different from the Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages I usually work with. It fills a missing piece in my understanding of the Indo-European family. For all that, I love dabbling in it through the odd couple of lessons on Duolingo, or a leaf through a basic Irish grammar.

That said, me and Irish are involved on a strictly casual basis. I have no particular goal in mind. No exams, no trip to the Gaeltacht to chat with locals. I just enjoy exploring when the mood takes me.

The way I approach Irish reminds me of the ‘down the rabbit hole’ experience many have with encyclopaedia site like Wikipedia. Browsing a single article can lead the reader to click link after link, hopping from one article to another. Exploration is the end in itself, the achievement won. Whatever the content, however idle the amble, we are just that little bit richer at the end for it.

The result? Walking around public spaces in Ireland is now a series of ‘aha!’ moments. This weekend, it chuffed me to pieces to recognise the occasional word and structure in the Irish language signs  in and around Dublin.

My proudest (and geekiest) achievement: recognising eclipsis on a sign for a men’s swimming area. It’s a lovely moment when you realise that even the most superficial amount of learning can help make sense of the world around you.

https://twitter.com/richwestsoley/status/1147912238373769221

Tantalising tangents

Achieving via the tangential route is nothing new for me, and you have likely experienced it too. At school, I was a diligent and effective student. But regularly, my teachers would drag me back on course as I’d drift off on some off-the-beaten-track knowledge expedition, away from the prescribed curriculum and onto (for me) exciting, uncharted territory.

In language classes, I was eager to express what had meaning for me – usually what I had been up to lately. Without fail, I’d thumb straight past the pages on “a strawberry ice cream, please” to the appendix reference on the past tense. That was where my spark of interest lay. Learning by personal detour meant that my sense of achievement was so much greater.

As my language journey progressed to college, one route led me to ‘collecting’ terms for birds and other wildlife in German. Useful for my A-level exam prep? Perhaps not. But fascinating and fun to the nascent language geek in me? You bet!

It hit homes in this lovely tweet I spotted recently, which neatly sums up our freedom to learn:

 Achievement on your terms

The fact is that the polyglot community has already uprooted language success from its traditional environment of formalised, assessed learning. Freed from the shackles of exam performance, there are as many reasons to learn and enjoy as there are methods to learn.

We are incredibly lucky to be part of a learning community that minimises achievement pressure like this. Even if that achievement is simply the joy of exploration and wonder, it is no less valid than acing written exams on a university course.

We are our own measure of success. Learn what, and how, you love. And let that be your achievement!

It’s a date! Planning for language success with extreme calendarising

As a naturally busy (read: untidy) mind, the discovery of proper planning in recent years has been a godsend for my language learning. From happy-go-lucky, read-a-few-pages-here-and-there amorphous rambler (goodness knows how I managed to amble my way through university), an organised me rose from the ashes of chaos. The past decade or so has seen me become a much better learner for it. That bright but scatterbrained schoolkid who had to attend interventional self-organisation training at school finally realised the error of his ways.

The secret isn’t particularly well-kept, mind. Just the discipline to set weekly targets, combined with a bit of creative to-do listing using software like Evernote and Wunderlist, are enough to clear the path to a wholly more efficient kind of learning.

There’s always room for improvement, though. To-do lists are great. They’re just not particularly precise.

You probably know the issue well, too. You have a list of things you want to do by the end of the day. But come the evening, you realise that you’ve left them all rather late. That is the best way to turn tasks you might otherwise find fun or engaging into chores.

It’s a date

Recently, I came across an article about a woman who halted that drift into nebulous indolence by calendarising everything. Now, her example might come across as, well… a little extreme, as far as productivity drives go. Rising at 4:30am, scheduling time with family and friends to the minute – well, my life isn’t that busy. But there’s definitely something in this approach worth trying.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending some moments each evening to schedule explicitly each to-do on the next day’s calendar entry. It’s a flexible schedule, of course, with plenty of slack built in (I’m neither monster nor machine!). But giving my daily plan some solid structure has made a big difference.

Planning a day of leisure and learning through explicit calendarising

Planning a day of leisure and learning through explicit calendarising

Following a plan you made the night before is a little like playing the role of both instructor and learner. In pre-planning, you determine the course of action for your future self. Following that route, there is a sense that this past self is instructing your present course of action.  And for me, that purposeful split personality, separating planner-self and learner-self, both busts drift and yields a solid boost for discipline.

Seize the day

As your own day-to-day educational planner, you are designing your own curriculum as you go along. The upshot of this is that the day view of Google Calendars suddenly becomes extremely useful. And that goes for that wealth of other free tools, which suddenly become invaluable planning buddies.

The idea of creating your own ‘personal college’ with a disciplined daily approach has relevance well beyond languages. It has gained some traction particularly in the US, where university costs have become prohibitive for some.

Super-learner Scott Young, for example, took advantage of free online materials to work through the entire MIT computer science curriculum in his own time. With a raft of free platforms and resources available to linguists, we are perfectly placed to do the same. Playing the role of your very own course architect and calendarising curriculum scheduler, you can reap similar rewards.

So am I cured of my chaotic tendencies? Well, I never want to lose that bit of slack I still build into my routines. I think a little bit of chaos is good, especially for creative souls. But a little extreme calendarising gives me just enough structure to balance things on the right side of discipline.

Variety is the cheese of life. Image from freeimages.com

Variety is the cheese of life : Acknowledge and bust your rut!

Variety of approach has always been a hot topic for me in language learning. Changing up your sources and materials is one of the best ways to maintain high interest and motivation in a study regime.

But I discovered something more to that trick in recent weeks: the same guiding principle is an excellent strategy for keeping the rest of your life bubbling effervescently, rather than fizzling out into stagnation.

Someone moved my cheese!

In the classic productivity title Who Moved My Cheese, Dr Spencer Johnson details the very human tendency to fall into patterns of sameness. These patterns make us inflexible and impervious to change. In other words, they get us stuck in a rut.

Ruts are funny things. You can be stuck in one, yet not realise it. And it can take a big disruption to shed light on it.

For me, life was seemingly in perpetual motion. Working between several UK cities, the commuting rhythm gave the impression of a geographically open, free life. And don’t get me wrong; there is a great freedom in working both remotely and on the move, with a couple of weekly office days providing an anchor point between travels.

But what we do not see is how rigidly arranged everything is behind the scenes. Movement was ongoing, but within very narrow confines. It was motion, for sure, but it was always the same motion. I played the role of master of my own destinies, but in reality, it wasn’t me doing the managing. It was the train and plane schedules. Travel plans come with unique, prohibitive restrictions thanks to peak pricing, busy services to avoid (especially for someone who hates big crowds) and fitting work around family and friend commitments.

The result? I’d become a creature of habit without realising it. I knew exactly where my cheese was, and I always expected it to be there. The same trains, the same planes, the same routes.

Until they messed my train schedules up!

Desperately seeking cheeses

Yes: London Northwestern and Virgin Trains, in their wisdom, took a bulldozer to my well-trodden paths up and down the country. Obviously, there was some greater logic behind this. Some improvement or efficiency saving for the greater good. But my safety blanket, my familiar routine, was simply no longer there.

First, I felt panic. Then, realisation: I had been in an unknowing rut, always returning to the same spot for my little nub of cheese. In a life characterised by change, I had become inflexible to it, spoilt by the continuity I enjoyed up to that point.

It was time to relearn cheese-hunting.

Experiment and enjoy the variety

With nothing to lose – my original services were no longer an option, in any case – I started to change my calendar up a little. I experimented with a number of alternative routes, not settling on one, but going out of my way to try out the possibilities.

Crucially, I resolved to be brave, and particularly, to try routes I might not have ordinarily considered. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is a healthy habit in learning. And, I found, it can be just as helpful in day-to-day life too.

Somewhere in the mix, you hit upon some nice surprises.

Same place, fresh eyes

The treasure in the ruins, for me, was the discovery of some very cheap and empty early hours services to London. Instead of arriving at 9:30am, I would get to the capital at 7am. Ouch.

But wait. There’s a gift in there. It’s the gift of time.

Instead of racing to the office to get a good two hours of desk time before lunch, I could take my time. And it dawned on me that I could take my time in a pretty exciting place. London was mine for a full two hours.

It’s a wonderful experience rediscovering a place that you began to associate only with work. I planned walks, coffee stops, sightseeing detours. I got to know the city as a pleasure again, rather than a chore. The Thames. Westminster Abbey. And St Paul’s Cathedral, just a stone’s throw from the office! I’d been missing out on so much.

St Paul's Cathedral, London - my bit of variety this week!

St Paul’s Cathedral, London –
a bit of variety for me this week!

Coming full circle

Linguists, bear with me: these circumlocutions do come full circle, right back to language learning. On my London walking adventures, I stumbled back into the territory of Foyles, the magical book Mecca on Charing Cross Road. Foyles has, by a long stretch, the best language learning department of any UK bookshop. What a rediscovery!

And just think: if it hadn’t been for those pesky schedule changes, I’d never have stumbled across that Aladdin’s cave of volumes again – at least for a long while.

Foyles - the place to find variety in language learning books!

Foyles, London

So in life, as in languages, a change – forced or not – can respark the joy. Someone moved my cheese, but it reminded me that life is full of different cheeses for the hunting (and not just the corny song kind).

Keep movement in your life. Learn the lesson of variety. And stay on the lookout for fresh cheese!

Printing letters. Image from freeimages.com

Personalise your vocab routine with Tatoeba custom lists

Often, on a learning journey, you find your way back to a trusty old path travelled a while back. And recently, I have found my way back to the mass sentence site Tatoeba in order to solve a very particular language learning problem.

Sourcing specialist vocab in context

The issue to solve was familiar to many of us: a lack of formal learning materials on vocabulary topics of specific interest to us. For me, politics and current affairs are such hot topics, and I enjoy chatting about them. Why not bring that into my conversational sessions?

Here’s the rub: not many language primers cover this material thematically.

Of course, I could dive straight into primary news materials like newspaper websites. But these are frequently well beyond the ‘intermediate improver’ stage I am at with a number of my languages.

The solution? Tatoeba’s vast corpus of searchable sentences taken from all areas of written life, and translated into multiple languages by native speakers.

Curating custom Tatoeba lists

Why is Tatoeba such a perfect platform for sourcing very specific vocabulary for speaking lessons? It is atomised, for a start. The sentences may be lifted from extensive, lengthy, real-world texts online and elsewhere, but they are broken down into single sentences for consumption on the site. As a result, they are much easier to work with.

For example, rather than scouring tvp.info for useful instances of the word rząd (government) in use, I can simply search Tatoeba for sentences containing that word. Not only is it quicker, but the yield is greater too; scores of sentences pop up in an instant. It would take a lot of online scouring to find so many items from scratch.

Creating custom lists

The second big advantage of vocab-hunting on Tatoeba is list curation. With all those useful governmental phrases called up, you simply work your way down the results, clicking the little document icon to add them to a custom list. These lists become you very own personalised vocab learning banks.

Mining Tatoeba for sentences containing the Polish 'rząd' (government).

Mining Tatoeba for sentences containing the Polish ‘rząd’ (government).

A note on quality: for best results, use the advanced search and ensure that you check the owned by a self-identified native option when phrase-chasing. You can even specify whether the entries have audio or not, which may be useful if you are brave enough to play with more complex options for export!

Advanced search options on Tatoeba

Advanced search options on Tatoeba

Once created and populated, your list has its very own page, including a simple text export option. You can also make what you have created publicly available, if you are minded to share.

Curating a custom list from Tatoeba sentences

Curating a custom list from Tatoeba sentences

After you have refined and exported your list, it is an easy final step to add the data to your Anki decks via File > Import. Likewise, importing into Quizlet is hassle-free with the basic tab-delimited format of the exported file.

Then, the real work begins as you start to drill your new vocabulary bank!

Material from Tatoeba imported into an Anki card

Material from Tatoeba
imported into an Anki card

Realistic expectations

A word of caution on importing your sentence cache into Anki: be kind to yourself. The default daily drip rate for new vocab items is ten per day. As these are full sentences, sometimes quite complicated, that can be a stretch. That is true especially if you are running these new sentences alongside your current decks, doubling your daily load.

I reduced my new card rate to five a day for the Polish deck above, which was just challenging enough whilst ensuring that I worked through them at a decent speed.

Back to its best

Tatoeba bounced back from a serious crash in recent months, and is now back to its best as a top tool for vocabulary expansion. It is a very welcome return for anyone hunting  custom source material for language learning.

As for my own progress, so far so good. Slowly but surely, that carefully selected material is making its way into my memory. And since it matches my interests, motivation to learn is high. Not only that: I am so used to drilling single dictionary items in Anki, that the fresh wave of full sentences has made for a helpful change. And it deserves a mention again and again: variety is a fundamental pillar in any successful language learning regime.

Give mass sentences a go if you struggle to find support for the things you want to talk about. There’s nothing like some vocab DIY to revive a tired routine!

The best cure for digital fatigue - paper and pen. Image from freeimages.com.

Digital fatigue in language learning: blending old school for a perfect mix

I’ve always been a big champion of digital platforms for language learning. It’s my passion – and my job. So it’s with perhaps with some sense of defeat that I admit to suffering from a bit of digital fatigue of late.

Maybe I’ve been overdoing it on Duolingo? Or perhaps the multilingual Anki decks have been a bit overwhelming. Either way, I felt the need to seek a bit of real-world, analogue solace this week.

Perhaps you’ve felt it too. That cloudy, foggy-headed feeling when you realise you’ve been idly staring at a screen for too long without actually achieving much. You wouldn’t be alone, given that 41% of respondents in one recent study report that same weariness with tech.

There is something energy-sapping about the sheer passivity of digital device usage and its hypnotic draw. For all the great things digital tools offer language learners, they are beasts that need control – or to risk being controlled by. It is no surprise that the great minds behind tech giants raised their children completely tech-free.

As much as I love the idea of adopting a wholly paperless routine, there was nothing for it. I had to prescribe myself a bit of old school.

Going old school

There is little else more old school in language learning than the trusty text book. Getting caught up in online learning means you can often miss developments and new releases in the book world, and there are some fantastic recent additions to the language shelf to give your eyes some screen-rest.

Teach Yourself books, for example, have played a winner with their recent Tutor series. Thoroughly offline – there aren’t even any digital versions at this point – they are modern, up-to-date grammar primers for A2-B2 level, packed with relevant examples and useful drills. I must admit to becoming a little addicted to them: four and counting!

Books are, of course, a joy. Being a bibliophile is almost part and parcel of being a language lover, so chances are you already have a wealth of material sitting on the shelf without rushing out to buy more.

Unless you have an e-reader with some novel e-ink features for a natural feel, spending time with physical tomes is the perfect way to beat digital fatigue and reconnect with offline learning. (Just don’t spend too long online ordering them – or even better, visit your local bookshop!)

You can work with these paper resources while still preserving the offline benefits. One combination approach I talked about recently was forward loading vocabulary from your books to your digital vocabulary tools. That two-track blend keeps you in those paper pages while leveraging the power of the app, too.

But what when it comes to written work?

Getting touchy-feely with words

Working a lot on my laptop, I’m used to using Evernote for language learning notes and other tasks. It’s simple, cloud-based and has lots of extra features like tagging (a lifeline if you make reams and reams of notes like I do).

That said, even amazing tools like this contribute to soul-sapping digital fatigue after a while. And when electronic note-taking is too much, there’s an obvious solution: good old pen and paper.

Physical writing, be it vocabulary lists, writing exercises or whatever other language tasks you choose, has a kinaesthetic, touchy-feely element that tapping on a device simply lacks. There is a level of preparation and care involved that makes it a wholly more active way to work with words.

Doing something physical with your material helps increase both your level of involvement and pride in it, both excellent get-it-to-stick tricks. And that’s not to mention the fun of enjoying lots of lovely stationery, too!

Old-school but environment-kind

Even still, nothing is perfect. Storage, paper waste, the general accumulation of stuff – the digital world promised us an escape from these downsides. Fortunately, there are ways to blend offline and online approaches so we get the best of both worlds.

An environmentally-friendly way to chug through reams of paper is simply to snap your handwritten notes into an app like Evernote or Scanner Pro, then recycle the originals responsibly.

Lately, though, there’s been a great deal of buzz around reusable notebooks on social media. Rocketbook and Infinitebook are leading the way for a new breed of paper: the kind you write on again, and again… and again.

Not only are they refreshed via a number of often novel methods (microwaving being the most out-there), but they contain crossover features that help them interface seamlessly with the digital world. Some pages, for example, contain checkboxes for the cloud platform of choice for storage (Dropbox, Google Drive and so on). Snap your notes with the dedicated app, and they will whizz across to their destination, safe and sound and without any bother.

Though affordable, these are something of a medium investment, costing more than even the average language text book. On the other hand, you may well save a fortune on traditional pads in the long run.

Fancy a cheaper option to Rocketbook and other pricey (but equally impressive) options? A mini-whiteboard can give you a place to scribble, scan and scrub at a fraction of the price.

 

Digital dream: still alive but reimagined

So, as a digital renaissance kid truly sold on the idea of a paperless future, maybe I am a little disillusioned at the reality. The idea of carrying my whole world – educational and otherwise – around on a 9″ tablet is looking a little jaded. But a blended approach really does save the day, pulling together the best of both worlds.

Ultimately, variety is the order of the day to keep language learning fresh. And if you only stick to digital platforms, you miss out on the wealth of resources the offline world has to offer.

Don’t feel defeat when digital fatigue sets in, like I did. Rediscover the offline to reignite your joy of learning. Then beat app anxiety without ditching it completely by blending your worlds!

Wading into the jungle of a new language course. Image from freeimages.com

Recon in the course book jungle: forward loading vocab to breeze through books

You know the feeling. A shiny new course book, fresh from the bookshop. All that potential, just sitting there, between the covers. There’s a joy and anticipation at the sight of a language learning book that only linguaphiles can know.

But where to start?

Sometimes, wading into the jungle, simply plodding straight through from page one, is harder than we would like. Somehow it can all feel a little… passive.

But there is a better way. Something that has recently proven especially effective for me and my course books is forward loading vocabulary. It’s an explorative, preliminary approach that can really increase what we get out of traditional courses like the Teach Yourself and Colloquial series. It turns passive plodding into active consumption of material.

So what is it all about?

Book recon

Don’t worry – there is no need to put off opening those pages immediately. Forward loading vocabulary is all about diving into your nice, new book straight away.

But that first dive is not to work methodically, and linearly, through the texts and language exercises. Instead, you initially steam through, chapter by chapter, combing the word lists, grammar explanations and dialogues to build your own vocabulary repository first.

Think of it as a language book recon mission. You are heading out on an expedition through the material to see what the terrain is like, and make your own map before you set off for real.

And how do you make that map? Using the vocabulary building tools of your choice, with a little bit of cross-referencing from dictionary sites and similar materials.

Preloading vocabulary from the first chapters of the Teach Yourself Finnish course in Anki

Preloading vocabulary from the first chapters of the Teach Yourself Finnish course in Anki

As for the level of granularity you choose – whether just key words or every lexeme, full phrases or the dictionary forms of individual items, for example – that is up to you. Anything you do counts as great prep for starting the book proper, so every bit of vocab mining helps.

I used the technique preparing for a recent language learning mini-break to Finland. Taking Teach Yourself Finnish (now Complete Finnish) as the key course, I first scoured the initial chapters for vocabulary. I collected this all in Anki, cross-referencing with Wiktionary to check spelling and add information (like infinitive forms, plurals and such like) as I went. To be particularly thorough, I even included the target language instructions, like harjoitellaan (“let’s practise”). Nothing is without value – it’s all extra word power.

With that done, I had primed myself for the material before I even started. Not only that, but I had created an interactive, daily vocab activity drill regime to run alongside the course material. I was ready to start Teach Yourself Finnish proper!

The benefits of preloading course vocab

As already mentioned, the obvious benefit of forward loading is priming, specifically repetition priming.  This cursory familiarity with course material is a kind of pre-learning, and sets the stage for greater recall even before you even start in earnest.

Our brains pick up much more than we might realise from a first look. Having worked through all those words initially means that connections form – and deep learning occurs – much more readily the second time around.

Own that vocab

That’s not to mention the boost to your sense of ownership over that learning material. Working carefully and creatively with vocabulary is a fantastic way simply to care more about it. And caring more is a sure route to greater motivation. Tools like Anki allow for all sorts of customisations that help make those decks your own.

Managed, two-track learning

Depending on the vocab tools you use, you can benefit from some solid learning science, too. Anki, for example, drip-feeds flash cards to the user at intervals based on an optimised formula.

In my Finnish experiment, I found that Anki’s 10-a-day standard pace matched quite well the speed at which a learner would usually progress through a text book. That makes for a complimentary, tandem vocab learning track to go alongside your course work.

Savvy learning

Creating a separate glossary also makes you a savvy learner. You can keep tabs on exactly the kind of words and phrases you are covering in the language. Not only that: you can even give a rough guesstimate on how much you know of that language, in much the same way as Duolingo measures progress in its use of the term ‘lexemes’ (these units are exposed on the Duome site, for example).

Anki, for example, will report the number of items in your decks via the Browse tab. If you are ever frustrated by woolly questions like “how well do you know language X?”, then an exact word count can be a satisfying (if not particularly practical) answer!

Sharing is caring

Finally, building custom word lists gives you the opportunity to share your hard work with others in the community. Although using ready-made lists won’t give them the benefit of all that sense of ownership, it might be the helping hand they need to get started in Finnish / Hindi / Yoruba. Here is my collected vocabulary from Teach Yourself Finnish Chapters 1-3, handily collated in a public Quizlet list.

Forward loading is one way of working actively with your course book rather than just passively consuming it. It gets you started straight away, gives you a real sense of progress, and sets you up to breeze through the course book when you tackle it in earnest. Do a bit of vocab recon before you start wading through the jungle, and give forward loading a try!

A computer screen (image from freeimages.com)

Vocabulary cross-platforming : make your DIY language learning data work harder

A major feature of language learning in the digital world is the abundance of tools for building and testing your own vocabulary banks. Anki, Quizlet, Educandy, StudyBlue, Cram… There are all sorts of platforms for collecting and drilling the words and phrases you study. And pretty much all of them have a free tier, making these tools more accessible than ever.

But what most of these platforms share is an often overlooked feature that adds a little bit of power to your wordbank building. It is the facility to export and import vocabulary data in a standardised, cross-platform format.

The biggest benefit of this is the ability to create your word lists just once, then work with them on multiple sites or apps. So why is that so useful?

Variety in learning

For one thing, variety is particularly important for maintaining a healthy learning regime. Taking multiple approaches avoids tying your new knowledge to one particular setting, and falling foul of the context effect. When you make use of several testing platforms, you discourage the brain from binding words and phrases to unrelated cues like layout, colours, font, and even the environment you regularly use the app in.

Not only that: using the same platform all the time can just get dull. And if there is one demotivator you need to avoid, it is boredom. Mix it up and keep it fresh!

Finding perfection in the mix

No platform is perfect. Some do things better than others. Others do things that are unique and not offered elsewhere. Sticking to one single tool for your vocabulary practice is certainly not making the most of the wealth of opportunity on offer.

As an example, Quizlet and Cram offer a couple of fun, arcade-style games. These make a nice change from the familiar, text-based drills of many apps. Additionally, Quizlet has a clean, no-nonsense test activity, which combines four types of activity across twenty random items in your list. It’s snappy and random enough to stretch you with longer vocabulary lists. And then again, none of them really beats the interval-based flashcard testing of Anki.

No single app has it all – ensure that you get it all by cross-platforming.

Arcade-style vocabulary drilling with Quizlet's Gravity

Arcade-style vocabulary drilling
with Quizlet’s Gravity game

Ownership of vocabulary

I’m a big fan of creating a sense of ownership over your own vocabulary to increase motivation. Those words and phrases are a map of your own, very personal journey through the language. Be proud of them! Careful curation of a master list for use across sites can help foster that sense of pride.

Exporting your data from services that you use puts it in your hands. You can use it elsewhere, or even alter it directly if you like – it is no longer bound to a third-party service.

Getting at your data

Of course, you actually need to get at your data to enjoy all of this.

The first step is to locate the import / export features of your tool of choice. In Anki, for example, the relevant options are in the File menu. In Quizlet, you will find export in the settings menu for each of your question lists; import options, however, appear when you go to create a new list. If in doubt, search for import / export on the FAQ or help pages of your chosen service.

Once located, the standard format you need may be labelled differently from app to app. Generally, comma-separated, plain text values are the most compatible across platforms. In Anki, this equates to selecting Notes in Plain Text (*.txt). To maximise compatibility further, uncheck any extra options, such as tags or media references in the Anki example blow.

Exporting vocabulary from Anki

Exporting vocabulary from Anki

Exporting vocabulary from Quizlet

Exporting vocabulary from Quizlet

The text-only file created should contain all your vocabulary data, but be simple and stripped down enough to import into most sites. Comma-separated files can even be opened and edited in spreadsheet software like Excel and Sheets.

As a handy side-effect, they also double as emergency backups of your data if you store them safely elsewhere. Accidentally deleted your list? Or has the site you were using disappeared? No problem. You have your vocabulary safely squirreled away.

Choose your master

It is also crucial to choose your master. Don’t fret – your personal autonomy is safe! It is a master app or platform that you need to decide on.

Select a single platform that you use as your main repository – ideally the one you are most comfortable list-building with. You can then export from that into other services. This keeps things simple: any new vocabulary will always go into your master list, and you will avoid ending up with discrepancies across platforms.

I use Anki as my master list, chiefly since it allows for tagging entries with keywords, making your data queryable. For example, it is a cinch to run off sublists of vocabulary based on topic tags for various purposes. Anki’s Browse window gives easy access to these quite powerful list management features, and it operates very much like a database. Anki is also extensible with modules that enable greater multimedia control, such as this add-on for interfacing with other language learning web services to enhance your notes.

Browsing Polish vocabulary in the Anki desktop app.

Browsing Polish vocabulary in the Anki desktop app.

That said, you can even use spreadsheet software to manage your master list as mentioned above. Administering your vocabulary in a ‘raw’ format like this can increase your sense of ownership over it, too.

Don’t find yourself limited to a single vocabulary management platform. Own your data and make it work!

Are you making free resources work for you? Get the most of out of that wealth of apps on offer. Cross-platform your vocabulary!

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

Building linguistic muscle memory with Duolingo

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

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

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

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

So why is Duolingo so useful?

A Duolingo leaderboard

A Duolingo leaderboard

Muscle memory

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

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

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

Automating those little details

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

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

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

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

Duolingo and the lost details

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

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

Duolingo has even being training the sloppiness out of my language habits. Learning Norwegian as a German speaker can be incredibly handy, since the languages are fairly close. However, assuming similarity can result in mistakes. Using Duolingo on both of them has thrown up some surprising discrepancies in the gender of cognates between the two languages. More often than not, these relate to the convention around how words from classical languages, like Greek and Latin, are absorbed into the language. Here are a few:

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

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

Need for speed…

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

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

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

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

…but recognising road bumps

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

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

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

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

Learning is a journey, not an outcome

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

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

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