A bird's feather: the result of exaptation? Image from freeimages.com

Exaptation : Extreme Language Change

In 1990, linguist Roger Lass transplanted an idea from evolutionary biology to historical linguistics: exaptation.

Exaptation is the repurposing of existing elements for brand new functions. In biology, the classic example is birds’ feathers: originally believed to have developed as heat-retaining insulation, they provided a convenient basis for flight. A lucky accident, if you will. And there are plenty of instances that fit that bill in language change.

Lass’ classic example involves the development from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. PIE had a system of alternating vowels (called ablaut) to mark aspect in verb stems. For instance, a present stem might show -e-, while -o- signified perfect and -ø- (zero, or no vowel) was the marker for aorist. Ancient Greek actually preserved that pattern quite well, and Lass gives the examples:

  • Present: lpo (I leave)
  • Perfect: léloipa (I have left)
  • Aorist: élipon (I left)

However, Proto-Germanic did something quite odd. Instead of using it to indicate aspect, it repurposes it to show number in the preterite tense. Look at these examples from Gothic:

  • Present: beitan (to bite)
  • Preterite 1ps: bait
  • Preterite 1pp: bitum

Considering that -a- is the Germanic reflex for PIE -o-, here, we have the same alternation – -e-, -o-, -ø- – but representing something else entirely.

An Idea with Wings?

Cross-discipline metaphors rarely fit exactly like a glove, and it’s clear this isn’t quite like feathers being exapted for flight. For a start, feathers still fulfil both functions: a cosy coat as well as flying apparatus. In general, with exaptation, we’re talking about wholesale transformation of something that had ceased (or was about to cease) to be meaningful any more. Lass called this morphological ‘junk’ initially, but this has been a source of disagreement. Just what is ‘junk’ in a language?

Still, it’s a compelling metaphor, chiefly because it gets the imagination churning. How can things change so drastically in such a short time? What does language look like while it’s changing like this? Does it happen a lot? Can we see it happening now? Sometimes the best ideas are the ones that spawn more questions.

Exaptation hasn’t gained universal acceptance as a theory just yet, some three decades on from Lass’ initial paper. Some say it just boils down to reanalysis, like many similar changes. Others maintain that it’s a very particular direction of reanalysis, so it is unique and worth a place of its own in the textbooks.

Whatever its status, it does throw up some absolutely fascinating examples of extreme change.

You can access Lass’ original 1990 article at this link!

Anki Image Occlusion with an IPA chart

Anki Image Occlusion : Lessons from the Medics

It was a long time coming, but I finally did it: I started using Anki for something other than foreign language vocabulary. Anki is steadily creeping into the rest of my life.

I know. What is the world coming to?

Admittedly, the new subject wasn’t a huge leap. I’ve started creating flashcards to drill terms and concepts from linguistics. That said, it does represent quite a departure from the way I usually create drill lists in the app.

The chief difference is the complexity of each chunk of learning material. Rather than one-to-one word and phrase combinations, we have terms with much more complex, interlinking definitions. And however brief, the information is a lot trickier to condense than simple vocabulary. Some of my flashcards were looking decidedly clunky.

If only there were some way to make it all a bit more concise and economical.

Anki-nspiration

So where to look for flashcard inspiration? Well, as it happens, language learners haven’t completely monopolised the Anki world. In fact, the app has quite the double life as a tool for medical students learning, amongst other things, terms and complex definitions!

It certainly pays to see how a diverse bunch of people use the same tool. We can learn a lot from users in other fields. And, nestling amongst the sprawling web of Reddits, there is a ton of general advice on optimising your cards.

Perhaps the cleverest trick of medical Anki users is the use of imagery for testing. Now I’m not talking about simple, one-to-one picture-word correspondences. Ohhhhh no. Medical students take it to another level, condensing lots of information into a single tableau. But to do that, they need to enlist some extra help.

Image Occlusion for Anki

The Image Occlusion Add-On for Anki allows for some quite sophisticated multi-field labelling questions. Obviously, these are ideal for drilling parts of the brain or major arterial pathways. But they lend themselves to pretty much any topic. If you can cover it up, you can turn it into an image occlusion activity.

For instance, you might think that linguistics is a rather text-heavy subject. Difficult to find too many diagrams to label, perhaps. But with a bit of creativity, you can adapt anything to fit the mould. Here’s an image occlusion activity I put together to drill the IPA consonants table and manner / place of articulation features:

Anki Image Occlusion with an IPA chart

Anki Image Occlusion with an IPA chart

Table-based data is actually perfect for these kinds of activity. And if you remember things quite visually, as I do, then making image activities out of them can yield some great memory results.

Fortunately, the Image Occlusion Add-On creators have provided a raft of training videos to learn how to use this incredibly useful tool. And – I’m very relieved to say – it’s not particularly difficult to get to grips with at all.

It is easy to forget that the Anki universe is quite massive. There is a huge amount of inspiration out there beyond our little bubble. Thanks, medical students, for pointing out this particular path!

A picture of a mouth articulating. Accurate phonetics gets us close to sound native. Image from freeimages.com

Phonetics Mismatch – Why We Mispronounce Foreign Languages (And Why It Doesn’t Really Matter)

This week, I had the great news of an offer to study towards an MSc in Linguistics. And, keen on preparing well for a good start, I started working through a couple of the set texts. First up: phonetics and phonology.

As language learners, all of us have probably touched this strange world of symbols and tables. Many materials will use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) or an adapted version of it to describe how to make the sounds of a foreign language. Some grammars for intermediate learners, like the Routledge Comprensive series, often include whole sections on the phonology (sound rules) of the language.

Phonologists use precise scientific methods to map out all of these sounds and their interactions, a process that can take years. The thing is, as learners, we rarely approach the ‘everyday phonology’ of a foreign language scientifically. Most beginners will not see /a/, and think open front unrounded vowel. Instead, we listen to a model, and make an approximation towards the sound through mimicry.

It really is just an approximation, though. And diving into some phonological descriptions of languages I know (like this technical summary of Norwegian), I got a sinking feeling. I realised just how approximate some of my pronunciation was. How was I getting it wrong for so long? And why did nobody tell me?

The lesson in this is how often even very proficient speakers of a foreign language articulate words differently from native speakers. But how do we get so close – close enough to operate fully and comfortably in the language – without quite hitting the mark?

Best-match phonetics

It is all to do with what articulation tricks are most readily available to us – chiefly the sounds we learnt as children in our first language. They give us a shortcut to make a comparable sound via a slightly different route. And they are so ingrained, that we are often swimming against muscle memory when we attempt to learn a brand new means of producing similar sounds.

The trouble is, our native languages often lack an exact equivalent in the target language, so we draft in the nearest match, often without conscious awareness of it. For example, speakers of English learning Spanish (and vice versa), are a case in point when it comes to the phonemes /d/ and /t/. Most varieties of English realise these as alveolar stops – that is, with the tongue touching the ridge just behind the teeth. In Spanish, on the other hand they are usually dental, with the tongue further forward, touching the teeth.

Try and make both of the alternative /t/ sounds yourself with the word tin. Difficult to tell, isn’t it? So much so, that we barely do tell the difference when we first encounter the foreign language. Instead, we produce the sound using our native inventory, substituting the sound from our first language knowledge without even realising it.

Subtle things like this, of course, are what give us our foreign accent when speaking other languages. And of course, although we can strive to minimise a non-native accent, it is nothing to be ashamed of (quite the opposite, in fact!).

Native issues

Take comfort from the fact that the same substitutions happen in our native languages too. For much of my childhood, I struggled to say the /θ/ in words like thimble and think. In the end, I decided that /f/ sounded close enough (and nobody seemed to mind at first). I stuck with that approximation a lot longer than my peers, until it was finally picked up by a teacher at primary school and normatively squeezed out of me.

However many extra years of give and take, though, the process of initial language acquisition is a fantastic feat of the mind. Children rapidly discover phonetics inventories and the phonological rules that can take academics years to map out – and foreign language learners years to assimilate.

With that in mind, cherish your approximations. They draw upon all the cumulated skills of those early miracle years of language acquisition. And even if the fit isn’t quite perfect, the act of repurposing them in second language learning is still a wonder of brain gymnastics.

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.

Blinkist offers condensed summaries of hundreds of books.

Blinkist : one-stop knowledge shop with some language-learning gems

If you use any social media platform, you can’t have missed them lately; those bold and brash ads, featuring ever-so-slightly smug millennials stating “I read four books a day” and similar. Yes, Blinkist has been on a marketing offensive in recent weeks.

I must admit that a bit of academic snobbery held me back for a bit. The smiling professionals in the ads haven’t really read the books, of course, but read and/or listened to synopses, or ‘blinks’ in the terminology of the service.

You see, Blinkist is, in essence, a library of hundreds and hundreds of Cliff Notes on best-selling non-fiction books. Part of me screams “but that’s cheating!” at the cheek of it. But there’s still something enticing about getting a regular, easy-to-digest snapshot of the latest knowledge and trends, so I gave it a go.

Blinkist for linguists

First off, I wasn’t joining with my linguist head on, but rather as a wannabe polymath. I have a strong interest in society topics – I did a social sciences degree in my free time a couple of years back with the excellent Open University – and I was looking forward to trawling through Blinkist’s catalogue of politics, pop psych and sociology first and foremost.

But surprise – there are actually quite a few titles of interest to linguists there. They go beyond general linguistics topics, too, including hands-on titles like Benny Lewis’ “Fluent In Three Months” and Gabriel Wyner’s “Fluent Forever”, both pretty much essentials in the polyglot community.

If you like learning about language as well as how to learn them, particularly how language develops and changes, Blinkist doesn’t disappoint. For instance, I love Guy Deutscher’s writing on language. I was more than chuffed to note that the platform includes his Through The Language Glass. It’s great to get a second shot at that in summarised, audiobook format.

Blinkist: enhances, rather than replaces reading

So, do I feel like I’ve ‘read’ the books I’ve listened to so far? Well, not really. I think a service like this inevitably skips the detail and nuance that make book-reading such a joy. But I do feel like I have a good overview of the main points. And it’s a nice way to ‘dip in’ to a book you might buy the full version of later on.

Also, there are a few texts on there that I’ve already read. For example, Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct was a set text on my language degree syllabus at Oxford back in 1995. The Blinkist summary is a brilliant way to revisit it, lighting up all those pathways and connections that I formed long ago on my first reading of it.

And that’s the strength of the platform. As a way in, or a way back, it’s a wonderful resource to work with non-fiction texts. And, if you like podcasts as much as I do, the similarity of the format will fit right into your routine. It’s also a very likeable format. The titles are read in a fairly neutral American accent, with a mix of male and female narrators. It feels like the team have taken care to make them as pleasant to listen to as they are quick and easy.

While it will never replace reading full books, Blinkist is one more tool in the arsenal of sites and services to keep you well-informed. And as a linguist, there’s lots to get your teeth into. With a free seven-day trial, it’s well worth a nose!

Sunbeams in a forest - pace yourself and go for a walk!

Pace and pause

We’re human beings, not machines. And sometimes, it’s importance to acknowledge that fact by respecting your learning pace, and building in opportunities to pause.

I’ve written before on the topic of learner burnout, and it’s definitely a topic that bears repeating. It’s also easy to forget about if you’re in the thick of something you love.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. After a packed February, thanks to the iTalki language challenge, I was buzzing. It was an amazing learning experience; my head was spinning with the mental stimulation. But packing in regular lessons for 5+ languages, as well as work, family and friends, takes energy. I was drained.

Still, I kept going on, and after an equally hectic March and April, the crunch came in May. My head just needed a little bit of rest.

Recognise it

The vital course of action under these circumstances is to recognise it. It can be hard to admit that something you love is tiring you out. Know that this doesn’t diminish your passion for it in any way. We only have a finite amount of energy, and all things – fun and mundane – can tap into that. And it happens to everyone!

Don’t feel guilty

Secondly, there is no shame in it. We all tend to place a burden of expectation on our own shoulders. If you’re driven by achievement in a field that you love, you can sometimes expect a little too much from yourself. Then, when your body and brain start to complain, it’s hard to admit that you need to turn it down a notch. Learner guilt steps in.

However, taking breaks is essential for keeping a steady pace. We are simply designed that way! It’s all a question of mental self-awareness and self-care, and there is a ton of advice online about that. For starters, here are some excellent reasons to shun the guilt when building in time off. Athletes pace themselves; learners must too.

Schedule it

Moreover, a short break doesn’t need to be an unstructured, indeterminate halt to learning. Being proactive about building in pace and pause means planning it constructively. Done constructively, a learning break is less about downing tools, and more about taking a short breather.

Define your break period clearly; give yourself a week or two in the calendar, deciding a clear return / resume date. That way, you can also keep teachers, learning partners and language buddies up-to-date on when to expect you back.

Planning a period of pause can also help you administer apps and services you use to learn. At this link, for example, learners discuss how to pause (or ‘suspend’) Anki flashcard decks during a period of downtime. Personally, I’ve also found it useful to move ‘sleeping’ languages into a separate Anki deck I’ve named “Archived“, with a daily card limit of zero. Whatever learning platforms you use, explore settings and features that can help you organise your rest space.

Try something new

Sometimes, a change is as good as a rest. While you’re resting your language brain, why not try something totally different? As long as it’s not too mentally taxing, going off on a tangent could leave you feeling refreshed. I’ve been following this Udemy course on creating digital art as a distraction lately, and it’s been a great diversion.

It can sometimes seem like one lifetime isn’t enough to cram in all the learning we want to do. But one lifetime is all we have. And making the most of it means respecting pace, and building in pause. Keep that in mind, and you’ll be a better language learner for it!

Non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures, are just as vital as speaking when it comes to real-life language use

Speaking without words: optimising your target language with non-verbal communication

Sticking to your target language isn’t always easy. But it’s a rule worth sticking to. Denying yourself the luxury of speaking your native language is vital in building up mental ingenuity and spontaneous, flexible thinking as a linguist.

However, it is a thing easier said than done. Especially when your vocabulary is limited as a language beginner.

Unpolished Polish

My most recent experience of this has been in Polish. I’ve been learning the language quite casually for a while. I really enjoy it, but maybe haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I’d like. As such, my level isn’t particularly high just yet (maybe an A2), but I can get by.

Just over a year ago, I visited beautiful Gdańsk for my first taste of Poland. I knew my Polish wasn’t brilliant, but I was determined to try and use it. Fairly quickly, I realised that this meant mastering more than just words. It was all about supporting my speaking with purposeful non-verbal cues and pointers.

Thrifty speaking shortcuts

You can pave the way for an efficient speaking-signing hybrid language by careful vocab prep. The trick is to learn words and constructions that have a general, rather than a specific application.

Demonstratives are essential – put this (one) and that (one) at the top of your list. Also, non-specific placeholder words like somethingsomeone and somewhere can be linguistic lifesavers when you are short on vocabulary. Add like …like this / like that, and you have an instant tie-in to hand gestures, pointing and more ways to get your intentions across without being a walking phrasebook.

Likewise, many languages have polite constructions for requesting something. Examples include Polish poproszę, French je voudrais, German ich möchte, Icelandic ég ætla að fá, Norwegian jeg vil gjerne ha and so on. These are transactional workhorses that you can use again and again. They combine perfectly with the general pointer words or gestures above.

If you lack those, even just saying the word/phrase for please, followed by the item you want, should work. If that still doesn’t work, gesticulating wildly will eventually yield the desired results. Just don’t be tempted to lapse into English!

Finally, words of possibility are very useful when combined with hand-talk. Just a simple is it possible? or can I?, combined with some pointing, will make it quite clear that you are asking for permission, for example.

Not just crutches

The fact is that planning for all these non-speech cues and helpers prepares you for real communication. How often is that you have tip-of-your-tongue moments in English, or struggle for the right word for something? And, like me, most people use gestures all the time to supplement everyday native language chat. So much of our regular interaction is non-verbal.

These are not simply crutches for the initial stages of language learning – they are part and parcel of human communication. Language is not simply words. It is an process set in a context of bodies, places and intentions. Working with that fact in your first steps learning a new tongue is no bad thing.

A model of a human brain, seat of the memory

Memory tricks to SUPERCHARGE your language learning!

Memory is a serious business. It’s a sport, which even has its own world championships. And this is nothing new, either; experts and sages have been teaching memory master techniques for centuries.

New research confirms that there is nothing new under the sun. The memory palace technique, a favourite of the Ancient Greeks, can dramatically improve recall, according to a recent article. This particular technique has a long and unbroken pedigree. As the ‘method of loci‘, it was a staple of medieval scholars, eager to memorise long tracts. Esteemed rhetoricians taught the technique to royalty, politicians and orators, who would use it to rattle off rousing speeches, full of learned facts.

Constructing your memory palace

So what is the memory palace technique? It involves the construction of a mental geography, which could reflect a real-world place like your home (or a palace, if you’re lucky), or be completely imaginary. The learner mentally deposits objects for memorisation around this location, often in a specific order. To recall the items later, all the learner must do is mentally ‘walk’ around the place.

Because of the element of order, the technique is brilliant for remembering a particular sequence of words. But more generally, it taps into our visual and spatial thinking centres, making the act of learning – and remembering – more of a whole-brain activity.

Multiple Memory LOCI

For the polyglot linguist, perhaps the best way to approach this technique is in the plural: memory places rather than a memory place. Friends often ask me: how do you avoid getting confused between all those languages? Well, by constructing different location markers as an aide memoire, it’s possible to maintain more separation between the pots of vocabulary in our brains.

This kind of location marking for target language vocab is nothing new or revolutionary. You might have already used the excellent Linkword courses, or similar associative techniques, for learning vocabulary. Usually, this route to memorisation involves visualising a scene that represents both the target language word and the English translation. For example, for l’eglise (church) in French, you take what it sounds like – legless – and construct a strong visual image that combines it with a church. The image of a parishioner turning up blind drunk (legless) to church is probably enough to make sure you remember it in future!

Vocabulary in situ

However, there is also an element of location marking built into the Linkword system. If a word is a cognate, and very close to the English translation, then the instruction is this: visualise the word with a stereotyped symbol of the target language (a bull for Spanish, a Bratwurst for German and so on). In the absence of a funny English sound-alike word, this ‘native marker’ technique is useful for creating an image where there would otherwise be none.

You can apply this technique as a multilingual learner, too. How do you keep five or more words for ‘car’ separate, for example? Well, one way is to visualise the word in the setting of the target language country. For Polish, picture a typical medieval old town as you drive your open-top car down the street. You pass someone on the street who starts shouting – he has the SAME HOOD as you do! (Samochód = car in Polish.) Cross the border into Germany, and drive on to Berlin. You travel under the Brandenburger Tor, where suddenly, your car starts driving itself. It’s an AUTOmatic card! (Auto = car in German.) 🚗🚗🚗

Supercharge with storytelling

That’s all very well for single words. But then, you can then start to embellish your locations. You can turn them into stories to add related words in the target language. For instance, what happens in Poland when you see the same hood guy? He walks over, kicks one of your wheels and calls you a COW, OH! (koło = wheel in Polish.) Meanwhile, in Germany, the wheels on your AUTOmatic car start to light up – impressed passers-by shout RAD, man! (Rad = wheel in German.) In effect, you are now building up a memory palace / method of loci in order to remember a series of related words in the target language.

Embrace stereotypes!

OK, so this advice isn’t generally advised for the everyday! Stereotypes can be annoying. But they actually work wonders with this method. The more hackneyed and comedic, the more comedic resonance your visualisations will have. That gives them salience, and makes them more resistant to forgetting. So don’t beat yourself up too much for visualising strings of garlic, or pizzas and sunglasses.

Above all, this is a technique to have fun with. So construct your place, be it palace or playa, and fill it with symbols and stories. It worked for the Ancient Greeks and countless others after them, so see if can work wonders for your memory, too!

Digital scrapbooking can be a wonderful way to link your language learning to real-world memories

Scrapbooking, linguaphile style

As a linguist, I love travel. I love that act of putting myself out in the world. I love immersing myself in the unfamiliar. And I love interacting with everyday objects from other cultures and systems, the ephemera that are mundane to their native users but exotic and exciting to me. Tram tickets, event flyers, receipts from wonderful restaurant experiences – they are all physical objects soaked in language and tethered to the culture they belong to. As cultural symbols, they appeal to the collector in us. But there’s a fine line between collecting and hoarding clutter. That’s where digital scrapbooking can be a great strategy for the travelling linguist.

Digital scrapbooking

Maybe it’s something I notice more as I get older, but the drag of stuff on my life seems more and more noticeable these days. Perhaps it’s because we live in a system where stuff is getting cheaper and easier to amass. But over the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to declutter and cut away the dead wood.

Sadly, that includes the boxes and files of bits and pieces gathered over years of travel. Museum entrance cards, train reservations, old magazines in German, Spanish and so on… Somehow I’d held on to all this clutter, considered it precious, yet never glanced at it once since bringing it back. Aside from the nostalgia stirred by dredging it out of the cupboard to chuck, it was almost entirely unnecessary.

Ticket for the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Ticket for the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

There’s another way modern life can help us, though. In an age of high-quality camera phones and vast (often free) cloud storage, it’s no problem to digitise these physical language links and discard the original. We can also organise them using myriad free tools, too. (Of course, we now face the brand new problem of digital clutter – but that’s a topic for another post, another day!)

Scrapbooking tools

Note-taking applications seem ideally suited to digital language scrapbooking. All of them allow the creation of documents / notes, to which you can add text and multiple images. Simply snap your tickets / leaflets / receipts instead of keeping them. Many of them also have more advanced formatting features for laying out your memory pages.

As well as keeping your memorabilia together, you can use them as travel diaries and learning logs, too. I like to record notes of conversations I’ve had, or new vocabulary I’ve come across. Juxtaposed with visual material, they become more meaningful and vivid as language memories.

All of the tools below are cross-platform, so you can enjoy them whatever the make of your phone / tablet / computer.

Evernote

Evernote is the justified king of note-taking apps. Notes have rich text formatting, and you can add not only pictures, but sound to your pages! Imagine using that to record clips of your conversations with native speakers…

However, there are some caveats. The basic version of Evernote is free. Unfortunately, this limits use to a maximum of two devices – not handy if you want it on a phone, tablet and computer.

Additionally, the basic tier allows only very limited upload traffic a month Evernote – just 60mb. If you’re adding lots of pictures to your notes, then that will run out extremely quickly. To work within the limits, make sure your pictures are tiny / compressed first – but even then, you’ll probably want to upgrade sooner or later.

Microsoft OneNote

OneNote is a completely free offering from Microsoft, with great integration into its Office services. One of the nicest things about this app is its reflection of real-world notebooks; you can create separate ‘books’ with multiple sections and pages. Ideal for repeat trips, or a trip with multiple destinations. You can also choose authentic-looking paper backgrounds for your pages, too. Great if you want the look and feel of physical scrapbooking!

Scrapbooking a trip with Microsoft OneNote

Scrapbooking a trip with Microsoft OneNote

Google Keep

Google Keep is a minimalist’s dream. Totally free, its simplicity stands in stark contrast to the two apps above. There are fewer formatting and organising options, but that makes for a click-and-go process that is hard to beat on ease of use.

As well as apps, Google Keep is available via the browser at https://keep.google.com/.

Trip scrapbooking with Google Keep

Trip scrapbooking with Google Keep

Language travel scrapbooking is a great way to stem the build-up of holiday detritus; it’s also a superb way to track memories and keep a learning journal all in one. And the best thing: it’s free to give it a go, thanks to the apps above!

Are there other apps you can recommend? Feel free to share you own tips in the comments!

Change may be accelerated by societal pressures.

Change, society and the language learner

Language never stands still. As learners, we study a moving target. The only constant is change.

It’s something that hits you when you learn from old textbooks. Many old, forgotten language courses still have mileage in them, especially if you like learning the nuts and bolts of grammar early on.  You do have to keep one eye on the relevancy of the language learnt, though.

For instance, I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of months from a Teach Yourself Polish edition that was originally published in 1948. It’s no longer available in print, but it really suits my learning style; I’ve not found a gentler, clearer introduction to Polish grammar in anything newer.

Language reflects social change

Saying that, the world, and the vocabulary that reflects it, have changed a lot since 1948. I won’t find the Polish for computer or mobile phone in there, for example. Neither will I be able to talk about my job (developing language learning software). I can’t even talk about recent political events (what’s the Polish for Brexit or fake news?).

These sweeping and rapid changes tend to affect the content words of a language. Generally speaking, the function words – those nuts and bolts like articles, conjunctions and pronouns – are slower to change. It has taken centuries, for example, for English to whittle down the pronouns ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ to a single ‘you’.

Brave new world

However, we live in times that see status quo smashed and long-held tendencies bucked. One explanation for this may be the increasing speed of information flow through society. Social media facilitates this flow,  catalysing societal change; language, mirroring society, reveals these changes in an ever quicker pace of change.

Recent developments in Sweden, and more recently, Norway, illustrate this society-language two-step nicely. With the emergence of new gender categories such as trans and non-binary, language was left wanting. Swedish han (he) and hon (she) no longer reflected the reality many want to talk about. Broad support to plug this gap led to the adoption of a new, gender-neutral pronoun, hen. The Swedish Academy finally recognised the word in its official word list in 2015. Today, Norway’s Labour Party leads calls for the same in Norwegian, continuing a pace of language change that does not even leave function words untouched.

It’s worth noting that there is nothing truly new about gender neutrality in language. Languages like Finnish and Turkish have long lacked a marker for gender in the equivalent of he/she. The difference is that their systems, presumably, evolved over millennia of language change; Swedish and Norwegian hen have emerged in just a few years, testimony to this new world of rapid change.

Stay ahead of change

So how can the language learner cope in this world? Well, sweeping functional changes are still rare in language, despite the hen example. Changes in usage and convention can happen from generation to generation, like shifts in the Swedish use of ‘you’. Still, these changes won’t make you unintelligible (and nothing a few days in the country won’t cure!).

Otherwise, there are a few tactics you can keep in mind to protect your language skills from becoming outdated.

Be on the lookout

It is important to arm yourself with cultural awareness when using slightly older materials. With old texts, bear in mind that the political world may have shifted; my 1948 Polish course, for example, is littered with military terms, doubtlessly useful to friends and relatives of Polish service personnel settled in the UK post-war. Less useful to me, I’m aware of the vocab I can probably ignore for now.

The names of countries may even have changed; pre-1989 German materials are historical documents in themselves, attesting to a still divided country. The terms for languages themselves may be different; texts on Serbo-Croat for learning the language of Yugoslavia have been swept away in favour of separate texts on the Serbian and Croatian of now independent countries.

Actively build vocabulary

Be aware of how the world has changed; actively seek to plug gaps your learning resources. Google Translate is being updated constantly, so great for finding single terms on modern life. Use tech / computer / lifestyle magazines in the target language to mine for new terms (Readly is a useful subscription service featuring many foreign titles).

Keeping ahead of language change with Google Translate

Keeping ahead of change with Google Translate

Read all about it

Read current affairs in your target language as widely as possible. Online news is (generally) a cost-free way of doing this. Here is a nice list of foreign language outlets to start with. Expose yourself constantly to the topics of the day, and note any new terms for learning. I use Evernote and Anki for adding terms to my vocab bank.

Intimidated by advanced news texts as a beginner? Some media outlets cater for learners of the language. German learners might like to try this podcast by Deutsche Welle, featuring the news of the day in deliberately slow, uncomplicated German. A similar service for Spanish learners is provided by NewsInSlowSpanish.com.

Embrace it

Finally, don’t see language change as a hindrance. Rather, be intrigued by it, and strive to follow developments in your target language country. Learning how a language has changed / is changing can increase your familiarity with both the language and the society it belongs to.

It illustrates perfectly how language should never be studied in isolation on a textbook page, but ‘in the wild’ as a living, breathing creature.

Thanks again to the brilliant NRK radio programme Språkteigen, who recently ran the story of ‘hen’ in Norway, and provided the inspiration for this post!