Eurovision 2022: Belgium’s Jérémie Makiese at the Second Semi-Final — EBU/SARAH LOUISE BENNETT

Happy Eurovision, Language Lovers!

Well, didn’t that year pass by quickly? It’s only Eurovision Day again!

It’s no secret: a love of Eurovision and language learning always went hand in hand for me. The song contest was the main reason I became so captivated by the idea of foreign languages as a kid, so I have a lot to thank it for.

But of course, things have changed over the years. The language rule was relaxed in 1999, allowing countries to enter in languages other than their official ones. In practice, that meant English for almost everybody. That said, enough brave and proud souls still keep the languages coming. France, Italy, Portugal and Spain: I’m looking gratefully at you in particular!

Still, there are always a few extra tongues that sneak in each year. In fact, this year we’re spoilt, as the final will include:

  1. Breton (for the second time for France, the last being in 1996)
  2. Dutch (for the first time in a final since 1998)
  3. Icelandic (most recently featuring in 2019 and 2013)
  4. Italian
  5. Latin (in the Serbian song – the last time being the repeated word Lapponia in Finland’s 1977 entry)
  6. Lithuanian (for the first time since 1994 – unless you count Samogitian as a dialect, in which case 1999)
  7. Portuguese
  8. Romanian (thanks to Moldova)
  9. Serbian
  10. Spanish (including a little in Romania’s entry)
  11. Ukrainian

Now call me an optimist, but that’s pretty good going for a competition which no longer enforces a language rule. And if we’re including the semis, we also had Albanian, Croatian, Greek and Slovene in 2022. Thumbs up to all those countries proving that English language participation still isn’t a given, even after 23 years of the free language rule.

In any case, however you are marking this great day, have a wonderful, joyful Eurovision.

And enjoy the languages!

Learning Devanagari on Duolingo (Screenshot)

Learning Devanagari ‘Just Because’ : On Not Needing a Reason

Have you ever learnt anything just because? Without any specific motivation or goal in mind? Learning something for the heck of it is a valid goal in itself, of course, and exactly how I’ve ended up with a basic knowledge of Devanagari script.

It all started off with an equally woolly, goal-diffuse pastime: collecting old language books. Some time last year, I added a lovely, pristine copy of the late 90s Teach Yourself Nepali to my collection. I bought it for the sake of completion, if anything. It filled a gap in my TY hoard.  But true to my New Year’s dabbling promise to myself, I spent a little time working through the first chapter. I found myself fascinated by the script, but a bit overwhelmed by the book’s everything-at-once introduction to it.

After a bit of Googling and Wikipediation, I realised that Devanagari is the script of choice for both Nepali and Hindi. What’s more, I remembered, Duolingo has a Hindi course. Surely I’d find a gentler introduction to the script there.

And didn’t I just. Duolingo introduces Devanagari very comfortably and gradually across the four initial lessons of its Hindi course. Each one contains just a subset of letters, and there’s no pressure to progress until you’re ready for the next tranche of beautiful, curved characters.

Casual Devanagari

So I started spending five minutes here and there on it. I approached it as a bit of fun, a pattern-matching game. As the lessons don’t contain actual words, that’s all it was – and it was all the more fun for it. I felt I was testing my memory, keeping my visual recognition skills sharp, and having a bit of fun casual mind-gaming.

Not only that, but it turned out to be a handy way to get my score up on days when I was too busy, or too tired, to do full-blown language lessons in the app. In five minutes of short practice lessons, I could clock up enough XP to keep me afloat for another day. Devanagari became my free pass.

Months later, I’ve almost learnt Devanagari by accident. I’ve barely noticed those characters settling into my synapses. And it’s there, if I ever need it, for learning Nepali, Hindi, or any of the other languages that are written in it.

It’s a far cry from my experiences as a schoolteacher, where there was often a pressure to justify language learning in utilitarian terms. To students, to parents, to ‘core’ subject staff – you name it. For sure, there are many very practical reasons to learn a language, and we all became adept at tripping them off, on cue.

But my Devanagari journey serves as a nice reminder that there doesn’t have to be a point at all, beyond ‘just because’. If there’s enjoyment, if there’s contentment, if there’s curiosity and it’s satisfied, that can be the whole point. Learn what you like.

An old, brick-style mobile phone. The notification problem was significantly less noticeable with these! Image from freeimages.com.

Creating a Notification-Free Language Routine

We’re slaves to our mobile devices these days. At least that’s what a whole tranche of research suggests, popularised in books like How to Break Up With Your Phone, Digital Minimalism and Smart Phone, Dumb Phone. Mobile operating systems bake in an addiction-dependency loop, the notification system being the carrot to our donkey brains. We just can’t help coming back for more.

I took a short study break away recently, in order to get some well-needed head space. My mistake? I didn’t plan any notification downtime. And it was my language learning apps that rudely interrupted my calm most, calling me to constant action. Green owl, I’m particularly looking at youIt’s time for your lesson! You were knocked out of the top ten! There’s still time to move up in the Diamond league!

Now, I’m a good lad and I always do my daily Duo. But the nagging began to feel a bit… stressful.

Pavlov’s Notifications

There’s an element of shtick to all this, of course, that Duolingo has very successfully spun into social media gold. It’s genius, to be honest; a top-class case study in building a brand identity. That mock menace is all part of the fun in the learning. It’s often great to have bad cop on our backs, cajoling us into action when we’d rather just idle.

But it can all feel a bit Pavlov’s dogs at times.

As a bit of a control freak myself, I find that aspect particularly unsettling. How much control have I ceded to my phone’s notification system? To what extent am I still enacting my own free will here? And how well has that notification system trained me to keep running back for more endorphin hits, even sans notification? Checking the phone first thing in the morning, walking to various destinations (never a great idea), last thing at night…

If I were a dog, my trainer would be collecting an award right now.

Granted, we’re not talking about mindless entertainment or trivial content. Those language learning pings emanate from some of the best educational apps out there: Duolingo, Anki, Glossika. Surely that isn’t a waste of time?

Well, no. But as part of a wider problem of notification addiction, I thought it was time to wrest control back just a little. To start using these resources on my own terms again.

Off With His Notification!

So it’s off with the Duolingo notifications, for a start. As much as I love the competitive side of it – daily targets, leagues, monthly quests – I hate being told what to do (it’s that control freak in me again). I already love doing my daily lessons. I’m not going to forget, so you don’t have to stress me out by reminding me every five minutes that I’ve dropped out of the top ten.

Likewise, I’m always on the lookout for more non-digital opportunities to learn and practise foreign languages. I’m building up an old-school language library, and taking time to go through those wonderful, physical materials mindfully, and far from my phone. I build in plenty of one-to-one and group classes to get time with real human beings. I’m using my devices for more slow learning tasks like reading books and listening to podcasts, which complement the fast-and-furious educational app mode (variety is key!). And I’m trying to follow general advice around breaking phone addiction: having a no-scroll rule for morning and night, and giving myself a phone curfew.

It is possible to break notification addiction, while still benefitting from wonderful resources like Duolingo. You just have to cede to your own inner control freak now and again.

Steam Gaming for Language Learners! A screenshot from Fallout Shelter in German.

Polyglot Gaming : Letting Off Steam

I must have needed to wind down this weekend. Either that, or my brain needed a rest. Whatever the reason, I ended up hopping on the Steam platform and indulging in a bit of polyglot PC gaming!

Now, I’m by no means a hardcore gamer. Despite early promise as a proud Commodore 64 technokid, and some dalliance with the groundbreaking Quake in the 90s, I managed to avoid the console era almost completely. Only in recent years did I start to make up lost ground, milking my Oculus Quest 2 to the max for all its gaming / language crossover fun.

Steam has been around for years already, of course. Oddly, PC gaming had never been a huge draw for me, beyond a brief addition to Sid Meier’s Civilisation at university. Maybe I associate the computer too much with work and study to really enjoy it. But when I heard friends cooing over Steam’s ample catalogue of free-to-play games, I thought it was worth a nose. We all need a bit of distraction now and again, right?

They weren’t wrong. After installing the Steam app, you have access to a bunch of older titles for absolutely nothing. But not only that…

You can search the Steam library by language.

Screenshot of the Steam app - gaming in many languages!

Multilingual gaming!

Instant polyglot satisfaction. And it’s not just the usual roll call of tongues, either. There are some more off-the-beaten-track entries on the language list, including Greek, Polish and Ukrainian. Of course, most of these options just change the interface text and written dialogue, but some include multi-language spoken audio too.

Perhaps it was the old Civ 2 addiction stirring in me again, but I found myself spending far too much time on the Noughties Sim classic Fall Out Shelter. If it hadn’t been for the fact I’d switched it to German, I might feel just a little bit guilty with all that procrastinating.

Only a tiny bit, though.

Polyglot gaming - a screenshot from Fallout Shelter in German

Polyglot gaming – a screenshot from Fallout Shelter in German

 

Scotland's Census 2022 - now including Gaelic as a separate question.

Operationalising Gaelic : Census Questions As A Political Leg-Up

It’s census time in Scotland! Letter are dropping through letterboxes across the land, inviting citizens to submit their details for the national record. And there’s bit of a buzz about a certain question. Gaelic learners are chomping at the bit to answer it.

All respondents will be self-reporting their knowledge of the language across the four skills. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, admittedly, leaving aside issues of level and competence. But its inclusion carries a lot of significance for the community of speakers and learners. So much so, that there’s been a concerted Tick the Box! drive to encourage skills reporting.

Scotland's Census 2022 and the very welcome Gaelic question!

Scotland’s Census 2022 and the very welcome Gaelic question!

So what is so encouraging about a simple language skills question?

Well, a census is never simply a neutral fact-finding mission. The very act of asking a question about some thing has a power beyond simple information-gathering. It lends political shape and weight to the item under study. Defining something as worthy of counting – and, by extension, of governance – affords it a life of its own, out of the shadows. There’s a Foucauldian underside to that, of course. Shadier concerns have used census-taking to carve up the world better to divide and subjugate it. But, turned on its head, mindful question design can be a tool to shine a light on groups that need support.

Canvassing Gaelic as a special, separate skill anchors it to the ‘set of things that are relevant to Scottishness’ in the public mind, as well as respecting the existence of speakers and learners in Scottish society. As language planners try to shore up and reverse the retreat of Gaelic from public life in Scotland, operationalising the language like this, so publicly, helps to pull it back into general consciousness.

And importantly, this plays out amongst census respondents who might otherwise never notice the presence of the language in everyday discourse.

Shoring Up Gaelic Support

Otherwise, how the census question plays out positively on a wider scale is tied to the eventual number-crunching. For a start, self-reporting second-language speakers add to the numbers of existing native Gaels. After disappointing numbers in 2011, this, we all hope, will give a much sturdier picture of a language in revival (fingers crossed). Whatever part this plays in the debate on native versus neo-Gaelic, a growing community must surely be a good sign.

And numbers matter. They are why, amongst other things, it is far from futile to add to Duolingo’s Ukrainian learner tally right now. Large numbers signify support. And as cynical a view of governance as it may seem, pressure from a supportive public garners actions and resources from power.

A sufficient groundswell can trigger political initiatives such as a recent call for more Gaelic at the Scottish Parliament, for example. Likewise, it can get a ball rolling in terms of everyday, out-and-about visibility. Tesco’s recent promotion of the language to star position on Stornoway store signs is a great example. None of this happens without the prompting of public interest, or the proof that stats provide for it.

In that spirit, I very proudly self-reported my Gàidhlig skills this week. And I hope many thousands of others will be doing the same.

Confidence boost - my participant number in the Commonwealth Game auditions

Confidence Self-Help : Exposure Therapy Edition!

If you didn’t already know (and I shout it from the rooftops so boldly that it kind of undoes the message), I’m a naturally shy linguist. In a community where confidence seems like a necessary prerequisite for being successful – at least in speaking – it can sometimes feel like a right old hobbling.

But sometimes the best way to tackle these things is head on.

In classic exposure therapy mode, I had the chance to hurl myself headlong at my social anxieties this week. I registered to attend a mass audition for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games 2022 in Birmingham. I hear your gasps; yes, I kind of surprised myself, too!

Confidence boost - my participant number in the Commonwealth Game auditions

Confidence boost – my participant placard from the Commonwealth Game auditions

In terms of personal exposure, this was up there. As well as group dance routines, there were some pretty challenging individual performance tasks that took me far, far out of my everyday comfort zone. I had to think on my feet with each instruction, steeling myself to be entertaining in front of a hundred strangers.

Confidence – Fight or Flight!

In the heat of the moment, though, our brains have a special trick: do or die. I knew I had to do something – the alternative was to run away, and I didn’t fancy that look much. So I stifled my inner wobbles and chucked everything I had into it.

By the end of the audition, I was brimming. Whether or not I get a part in the live show, it was one of the most enjoyable, energetic evenings I’ve spent in a while!

That rollercoaster of emotions felt so similar to tackling shyness as a language learner. I got the distinct feeling that the whole experience had given me an overall confidence boost, and that can only have a positive knock-on effect for my foreign language confidence, too. It’s made me determined to keep seizing similar opportunities that come my way.

And apart from keeping an eye open for one-off events like this, there are plenty of practice grounds out there: language chat clubs, book groups, music jam nights, choirs and more. Meetup is a great place to start.

Put yourself out there and practise that confident self. Your languages will thank you for it.

Incidentally, if you’re around Birmingham and fancy a shot, the Commonwealth Games team is still looking for volunteer performers and more: click here for details!

The flag of Ukraine flying in the wind. Image by freeimages.com.

Small Gestures, Great Cause : Ukraine and Cultural Solidarity

Like many, I’m finding it hard to think about anything but the appalling invasion of Ukraine right now.

It’s a plight that is breaking countless hearts, prompting the universal question what can we do to help? Not everyone is able to attend a rally. Many don’t have the means to donate funds.

But something sad I’ve noticed around #langtwt this week is the number of people questioning the little gestures, those involving cultural exploration and language learning. Many (including me) felt compelled to express solidarity by starting, or returning to, the Duolingo Ukrainian course, for example.

To language lovers, it feels like instinctual solidarity. But naturally, it triggers self-doubt over tokenism and futility.

On the face of it, yes, it feels achingly inadequate in terms of stopping bombs and bullets.

But amidst all the helplessness, anything that creates solidarity and increases understanding is worth pursuing. And, more importantly, so is anything that counters Putin’s faulty reasoning on the existence of a unique, authentic Ukrainian statehood and right to exist as a distinct cultural entity.

Because those numbers add up. On the first day after the invasion, course enrolment numbers leapt by thousands. They continue to rise.

In an age of algorithms boosting visibility, those extra thousands mean something. They pay a respect, through numbers, to the identity – and right to existence and self-determination – of that group.

So it may feel like a tiny thing. But those little acts of validation do carry weight.

For sure, the grander gestures are important. Donate, if you are able. Make your voice heard by attending rallies. Write to your local representatives to encourage action.

But don’t discount those small acts, either.

As scaffold builds a building, sentence frames help build your foreign language competency. Image from freeimages.com

Sentence Frames – A Home to Hang Your Words

Idly keying out some Duolingo practice phrases this weekend, an interesting sentence popped up in Polish. Kiedy śpię, to nie mówię. When I sleep, I do not speak. Hmm, I thought. That looks like a good addition to my Polish sentence frames.

Sentence frames are short, recyclable chunks of language with repurposable slots you can swap items in and out of. The idea comes from primary literacy teaching, namely the writing frame. Early schoolers support their writing skills by memorising reusable chunks with customisable blanks.

To get started on your own, all you need is a beady eye to spot sentences you can strip down for potential reusable frames. Take my Polish sentence, for example. Removing the content stuff, we’re left with:

Kiedy X, to Y. When X, (then) Y.

At this point, it helps me to read the stripped-down sentence aloud, substituting X and Y for a meaningful mmmm…. Kiedy mmmm, to mmmm. It sounds daft, but it prepares the brain for step two.

Doing Your Lines

The next thing to do is go to town with it. Like Bart Simpson (semi-)dutifully doing his lines on the board, scribble out a whole bunch of sentences using the same pattern. Slot in whatever comes to mind to start cementing it into memory. When I go to town, I visit my friend. When I get home, I turn on the TV. And so on, and so on. Soon that pattern will be tripping off the tongue as easily as a native phrase.

The reason these sentence frames are so valuable is that they supply that native phrase structure, rather than unordered, abstract dictionary knowledge. Instead of fumbling to piece sentences together from scratch, you have something to hang words onto before you start speaking.

They’re also easy to mine in your day-to-day language contact. You can spot potential speaking frame fodder anywhere and everywhere. Duolingo throws plenty of short, snappy examples at you, for instance. But billboards, TV ads and social media posts are excellent sources too.

Short ‘n’ Simple(ish)

Just like writing frames, sentence frames work best when they are simple. Some might only have a single slot, but represent a really frequent but language-particular pattern, like the Gaelic:

‘S e X a th’ ann. It is an X.

Others can be equally short but a little more complex, fitting in a third slot, like the German:

Wenn ich X hätte, würde ich Y Z. If I had X, I would Z Y.

Note the word order there. By memorising that frame, you’re drilling that very particular verb-final order of German subordinate clauses, too. That’s a lot of useful material packed into a nice cosy space.

Wherever you find them, however you drill them, sentence frames are a great tool to have in your language learning toolbox. For sure, it’s a case when doing your lines can be very good for you.

 

 

A page from Hippocrene Greek Basic Course - joining the dots, I realised it's one of the resources available on Live Lingua

Joining the (Typewritten) Dots

Sometimes you don’t end up joining the dots until years after you see the clues.

I had a bookcase tidy-up and sort-out this week. In one dark and forlorn corner of my shelves, I came across this unusual little volume:

I bought it in the early noughties, during the second of my three flirtations with Modern Greek. I can even remember where I picked it up – the long-gone Borders bookshop in Birmingham. There’s some extra nostalgia thrown in right away.

The reason for the book’s particular strangeness is that the whole thing is written in typewriter script. Odd, for such an outwardly modern-bound book. In any case, I must have thought it was cool and quirky at the time, as it certainly didn’t put me off buying it. It made a change from the usual sans-serif sameness of most courses.

Hippocrene Greek Basic Course

Those unusual typewritten pages…

Clearly, that vintage Murder-She-Wrote vibe suggested it was a reprint of a much older book. I didn’t think too much of it, except to note that the publisher, Hippocrene, was based in the US, and had a lot of older re-issues of other fairly obscure works in its catalogue. (It still does, incidentally, and is still going strong!)

Hippocrene Greek Basic Course

Publisher clues…

Wind forward over a decade, and I’m into online language learning resource hunting in a big way. I happen across the vast repository of language courses at Live Lingua. Predictably, I’m like the cat that got the cream. They’re vintage resources, for sure, having served to train US military and volunteering personnel for decades. But they’re free, and they’re still solid.

And also… a little familiar?

Joining the Dots

It turns out that my Hippocrene title is one of those reprints too. In fact, it’s pretty much a straight facsimile of the first volume of the FSI Greek course available on Live Lingua.

The dots were joined.

And it’s a good connection to make. All of the original course audio is available at Live Lingua. Now, for the first time, I have the listening material to go with that Hippocrene book, albeit via a slightly unusual route!

The book is still available even today, and, although you can find the same course for free, I must admit that it’s nice to read the physical item in your hands. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, with its strange typewriter charm.

And now I feel I know it even better.

Teach Yourself enhanced ebooks plus audio for Kindle

Teach Yourself Enhanced eBooks : Bargains Hiding in Plain Sight

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

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

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

Teach Yourself enhanced ebooks plus audio for Kindle

Teach Yourself Complete Greek and Complete Polish on my Kindle app

Teach Yourself… To Be Compatible?

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

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

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

Teach Yourself… to Read Non-Latin Scripts?

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

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

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

If In Doubt…

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

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

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