A sundial - one way to measure the polyglot days! Image from freeimages.com

A Multilingual Manifesto : Daily Tactics for a Polyglot Plan

I’m always inspired by the work of other polyglot learners. This week, I was living for the enthusiasm in this post on working eleven active language projects into daily life. There’s inspiration if ever you needed it!

It’s not all work and no play, though. The post reminded me that keeping up your languages isn’t about interminable formal study sessions, or filling all your spare moments with strict heads-down books-open calendar scheduling. There is a place for that, of course, and many of us happily geek out over it.

But too much intensity will burn the shine off anything in the long run.

One antidote to this is to foster brief but very regular habits, or daily tactics. These draw on the trusty old little but often approach. But there’s a second, even simpler method for working this sage advice into your day: putting language in your path. Create an environment in which you naturally bump up against foreign language material in the course of your day-to-day, even when not officially studying.

Multilingual Manifesto

Setting this environment up requires just a little initial planning. It involves putting together a multilingual manifesto: a plethora of personal polyglot policies which create effortless exposure to language.

These tweaks, or displacements, help shift your focal centre to target language interactions with the media around you. Most importantly, they are dotted around, and embedded within you day. They are the kind of activities that work just as well for one or two languages as they do for handfuls of them at the same time – especially if you have both active and maintenance projects.

Here are a couple of my own personal favourites for levering in the languages almost imperceptibly!

Languages on Drip

I am a news junkie. I can’t help it – I just love knowing what’s going on. Under normal circumstances, I will be checking live UK news outlets multiple times a day. Yes, I acknowledge that this can be an unhealthy addiction in current times!

Predictably, bad news fatigue prompted me to make a change-up in my life. But this change-up could be useful; I decided that overseas, foreign-language news sources would now be my first port of call.

First, I shuffled my links and icons so that foreign sources (like the excellent NRK app from Norway) were more accessible. Next, I turned off notifications from English-language news apps, and turned on those in other languages. This is incredibly useful; I now get regular snippets popping up on my phone in multiple languages. I hear a ping, and get a little reading tester in any one of my languages. Bite-sized practice, drip-fed at regular intervals: perfect.

There’s another positive side-effect. The news is engaging again – the Fleet Street-induced media fatigue has subsided!

Subtitles and Chill

News-fixing via notifications is the perfect example of a zero effort change to make language pop up in your everyday. Another is to tweak your defaults on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Of course, the obvious (and most full-on) language learning advice for using streaming is to watch foreign language series or shows dubbed into your language(s). But that can be quite hard work, and there is actually no need to max it out all the time. Heaven knows, watching nothing but shows in a language you’re still learning can frazzle the mind.

Instead, simply switch target language subtitles on by default. That way, there is always some foreign language content in front of you, even when you just want to relax and not bombard your brain too much. Your eye will wander to the bottom of the screen now and again, catching the odd new word or interesting translation. Believe me, I’ve picked up some very interesting Polish vocab watching Star Trek Enterprise.

And of course, the full-blown, polyglot, stereo experience is always there when you’re ready for the mental gym.

Switch Your Sauces

Of course, you don’t get more everyday than food and drink. And foodies can mix it up a bit by introducing a couple of kitchen-specific personal policies.

If you regularly cook from scratch, switch your sauces… I mean, ahem, sources. Find a target language recipe book or website, and commit to find dishes from there alone. It needn’t be for every meal. But once or twice a week, banish your native language from your meal prep.

2020 saw me resurrect my old, forgotten Greek, and initially through the medium of food. Making a night a week Akis Night has been transformational (at least for my food and drink vocabulary!).

The World’s Your (Polyglot) Oyster

This trio has worked a treat for me lately. But you can find polyglot tweaks to put languages in your path in all corners of your life. From gaming, to exercise, to background chatter while you work, there are ways to study multiple languages a day yet not be studying 24/7.

So what will your multilingual manifesto look like?

Vintage TV set for franchise hopping! Image by FreeImages.com

Franchise Hopping for Fun Televisual Language Learning

This week I’ve been practising my languages alongside tuneful trolls and celebrity sambas – all thanks to a bit of franchise hopping.

International rollouts of TV franchise successes are nothing new. I remember my excitement in the early noughties on discovering that the UK’s Pop Idol had a German version. Yes, it had the slightly unwieldy name Deutschland sucht den Superstar (Germany is looking for the superstar). But it was the same glitzy, shiny, melodramatic format that I loved in the UK.

Back then, of course, it was still pretty difficult to find clips online to watch (28.8k modem, anyone?). Needless to say, I came back from a trip to Cologne that year with both the series CD and DVD. I still have them somewhere, in my piles of foreign language authentica.

Nowadays, of course, it’s a completely different story. With whole shows widely available through national broadcaster platforms, there are few barriers to enjoying overseas versions of your favourite shows.

So what’s so great about franchise hunting as a language learner?

Franchise Fun

Franchise exports are excellent language learning resources for a number of reasons:

  • the format is familiar, so you can guess a lot of vocabulary from context
  • they are fun to watch, especially if you are already a fan of the original
  • franchise exports are often some of the biggest shows, so are both really easy to find, and have lots of supporting material on social media channels
  • transplanted shows often include local twists that give an insight in your target language culture
  • they can be a stepping stone to get to know well-known personalities in the target language country, which you can then track down in more home-grown shows

‘Easy to find’ is always a winner for language learning resources, of course. The simplest way to track down a particular franchise in a foreign language version is to locate its entry on Wikipedia. For instance, on the entry for The Masked Singer, you can find out local names for the show’s incarnations, and marvel at just how far the show has travelled.

The online encyclopaedia can throw out some quite surprising facts, too. Before my franchise hunt, I would never have guessed that the Masked Singer started life as a South Korean series. Now that’s a great excuse for Korean learners to watch some gloriously silly TV – not to mention further temptation in my way to learn Korean some day!

Local Twists

Another thing to look out for in franchise exports is how they are adapted to the local audience. There are often some lovely cultural twists; Norway’s 2020 edition of Maskorama, for example, featured the staple Nordic troll as one of the singers. And that’s not to mention the cultural crossovers. Looking up China’s The Singer (another South Korean export), UK learners can enjoy watching home-grown talent Jessie J storm to victory in the 2018 series.

Once you’ve located the show itself, you can then follow its social media trail for even more authentic material. Instagram is great for short texts and videos. For example, Skal vi danse– or ‘Norwegian Strictly’ to UK viewers – features bite-sized interviews and behind-the-scenes presentations which make for great listening practice. Likewise, the comments are great for reading some often very colloquial language (if you can handle the barbed tongues of irate viewers!).

Franchise telly might be as far away from highbrow as you can get with authentic material in the target language. But it can punch well above its weight as a bit of fun practice content!

Dictation exercise in Icelandic by Richard West-Soley

Dictation Inspiration : Back to basics with listening comprehension

Sometimes a really helpful technique is staring you in the face, and you fail to see it. Or you see it, and you fail to use it, for whatever reason. So it was for me with dictation, the wonderfully straightforward listening activity that other language learners employ with great success.

Dictation – or Diktando, as many know it – needs no introduction. It is one of the simplest language exercises around. Simply listen, and transcribe. It is the ultimate in cheap, accessible techniques, too – you just need a source (a podcast will do), and pen and paper.

But, for some reason, I had completely ignored it up to now.

Ignorance is no excuse, to my shame. For a start, Linguascope has featured a dictation exercise in each of its Beginner units for years – and I even developed it. Legions of kids had benefitted from my use of it in a resource, but somehow, it was not for me. Perhaps it was that association with the beginner level that put me off. I want to maintain and improve a set of languages beyond A1 for the most part, and dictation always seemed like a kind of pre-learning, preparatory, elementary game, something that put sounds before meaning.

But that was exactly what I needed.

Listening denial

I struggle with listening. I am certainly not alone in that, and I gain a lot from listening to teachers speak about improving students’ listening skills in the classroom. But at the same time as acknowledging that it is my toughest challenge, I still chug along in a bit of denial. It will just click of its own accord, I think. It will all fall into place. Maybe I just need to listen to a few more podcasts. I just need a bit more passive exposure.

It is partly the tendency to run before we can walk that leads us to these places. But what I really needed was a back-to-basics, purposeful, sounds first approach to listening. And dictation was sitting there, beckoning.

Dictation inspiration

Luckily enough, the activity popped up on my feed recently via one of the community’s most popular voices, Lindie Botes. I spotted a tweet in which she shared a podcast dictation she was working on, and was impressed and intrigued:

Here was dictation in use at a higher level, by someone with the same ambitious language goals as I have. Lindie’s approaches always command a lot of respect in the community. So, I thought, perhaps this did merit a revisit.

Spurred on, I chose two languages I speak reasonably well (B1-ish), but struggle to get past the listening barrier with: Icelandic and Polish. I set aside some time in the week for dictation tasks and selected my materials. It was easy to find sources to unleash myself on. For a start, I could pick from any of the woefully neglected podcasts that I subscribe to and never get round to listening to.

Warts and all

One thing quickly became clear: dictation really exposes your listening weaknesses. Now I understand what I was afraid of. All your difficulties, your neglect and your lack of practice are laid bare, warts and all. But finally, you see them – and only then can you work on them.

The thing about close listening is that you pay intense attention to the ebb and flow of words in the target language. You get to know how they run into each other, how they affect each other in terms of coarticulation. I realised I could know every word and every syntactical turn in a sentence, yet still not catch it until the fourth or fifth listen. For a grammar geek, in the habit of examining the nuts and bolts in isolation, this task was clearly well overdue.

But on the upside, another thing came as a complete surprise: the mindful nature of longer dictation exercises. That intense focus draws you into something of a flow state after a few minutes. Before you know it, a look at the clock confirms half an hour has passed without you noticing. Rather than the boring, mindless activity I assumed it to be, it was positively absorbing.

In fact, it took me back to my teenage years as a fanatical Eurovision nerd, pausing and rewinding cassette-taped songs to scribble down barely understood lyrics. I would take hours to get them right, no doubt ending up with some half-accurate, half-phonetic mush I could at least try to sing at the piano. I still warble some of those misheard lyrics in the shower, even today.

Letting go of perfectionism

But that, of course, is one of the biggest lessons dictation has to offer us. Aiming for perfection is more likely to scupper than to assist. Because, despite all of the technological crutches like playback looping and variable speed, you will struggle with some phrases.

In fact,  I found that slowing down to 50% often hindered comprehension. This is because sounds that are articulated quickly together change their quality. We are used to hearing that occur at normal speed, but at a snail’s pace, sounds can just sound weird.

For instance, I was certain that one Icelandic phrase was undir röklunum, searching desperately for the meaning of the non-existent second word. Finally, I played the phrase at normal speed, and realised that it was actually undir jöklunum (under the glaciers), with the -r affecting the quality of the following j-. This is a nice illustration of how over-focus on word-level language can hamper progress.

Dictation exercise in Icelandic by Richard West-Soley

One of my far-from-perfect dictation exercises in Icelandic

For a perfectionist like me, dictation can also be helpful in diminishing the pathological need for 100%. If you get stuck down a phonological rabbit hole, you must simply move on, else the whole activity grinds to a halt. Your heart will sink the first few times you leave a gap, but more and more you find that the following material fills in enough context to go back and complete the rogue snippets.

Likewise, dictation involves letting go of ‘neat work’ compulsions. I am a stickler for a nice neat page of writing (no doubt the former teacher coming out in me). As you can see from my scrawl, dictation necessitates rather a lot of amendments and crossings out. You have to accept the rough with the smooth. Perhaps the boldest claim yet: dictation, not only great language practice, but also a cure for OCD! 

Dictation exercise in Polish by Richard West-Soley

Dictation exercise in Polish

In short, I am a convert. I am becoming a better listener for giving this language learning staple a fair chance. I will continue with these exercises, perhaps even as a daily tactic. Just a regular ten minutes or so in weaker languages could make all the difference.

Is dictation one of your language learning strategies? Do you have particular techniques or a novel take on the exercise you find useful? Let us know in the comments!

Three plush monkeys in the see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil poses. Image by freeimages.com

iTalki Isolation Blitz? Here’s how to make the most!

Armed with a bunch of loose ends and a clutch of free evenings, I have been spending quite a bit of time on iTalki over the past few weeks.

In order to avoid bankruptcy, I tend to go for community tutors rather than professional listings. They are usually not only a bit more affordable (so you can book loads without worry of financial ruin), but have an added benefit: they can often be more chatty, informal sessions.

Now, we all need a bit of structure in our learning, especially in the early levels. But when you get beyond the basics, you can dive into those conversational, free-form lessons. You get to set the agenda, talk about what you like, and use the target language in ways that connect to youJust like talking in your native language. Fun!

Only it is never quite like that at first…

The thing is, even after we achieve lift-off from A1, there are always plenty of gaps. And without preempting them, you may complete your lessons feeling you could have made a bit more of them. Stalling, umming and aahing, grasping desperately for words…

Never fear. Arm yourself with these simple techniques for making the most out of informal lessons on iTalki, VerbLing and whatever other platforms you might find target language chat on.

Have fresh material close at hand

I see each iTalki community lesson as an end link in a chain that begins with private study. You spend a week or two working through language resources in your own time. Then, the end of that study cycle is buffered by a face-to-face session to practise and consolidate the new material.

For that reason, it makes sense to have the most salient points of study in front of you to crib from during conversation. Convo crib notes can consist of single vocabulary items or longer phrases to work into the chat. But they should be in note or list form, rather than fully scripted out. The aim is to become adept at dropping lexical nuggets anywhere within dynamic chat, not simply parroting them.

Use Speaking Bingo Sheets

Cribbing leads us neatly on to Speaking Bingo Sheets. I know, I must seem obsessed by these. I like to mention them at every opportunity. But they really help turn vocab-shoehorning into something like a game.

It takes no time to get started with these. Instead of a static reference list, organise some of the most key new items and structures into a grid. Then. tick them off as you use them, aiming for a full house, but awarding points for full lines, too.

Instant entertainment and practice rolled into one!

A speaking bingo sheet for Icelandic displayed in Notability for iPad.

A Speaking Bingo Sheets on the iPad ready for iTalki conversation

Pre iTalki Quiz Blitzing

A theme is emerging here: have that key vocab primed and have it ready to work, work, work for you in conversation. Priming, incidentally, is a well-documented psychological process, and we are really milking it in all of these warm-up techniques.

Another great way to prime to the max is to toss your vocab, paella-style, into one of the many free platforms for creating learning quiz games. These spit out any number of drill practice exercises that you can blitz before your lesson, in order to lodge the items firmly in short-term memory. Then, during their conversational outing, they can begin to settle down in long-term mental storage.

There is no shortage of these platforms at all. I recommend Educandy, but perhaps mainly because I am one of the co-authors of that tool! For the sake of neutrality, I should also mention Cram, Quizlet and StudyBlue as well worth checking out.

Here’s an online quiz I created to drill conversational vocab for an Icelandic lesson way back in 2018.

Educandy's green mascot

Educandy‘s friendly blob is here to help

Do some Focused listening

So far, each method has sought to recycle and prime your own materials. But passive reception is just an important in conversation, and using authentic material like talk radio or podcasts can significantly boost your lesson performance.

A bit of focused listening can tune the brain in to the sound and shape of the target language ahead of your lesson. Note that the key word here is focused. Simply having the radio or Spotify on in the background will probably not cut the mustard.

Instead, aim to sit down with a pad for ten minutes, listening out for key words and noting them down. These kinds of active listening stints are a great way to prepare your auditory circuits for comprehension.

Read aloud in the target language

So listening is great for understanding others’ voices. But what about your own?

When it comes to activating your language circuits, reading aloud packs a double whammy. Like stretching before exercise, it gives your speaking apparatus a nice warm-up. But as with listening activities, reading out loud also feeds plenty of comprehensible input to the brain right before you have to produce the language actively. That should trigger all sorts of mental pathways to vocabulary, structure and intonation, ready to fire off to your teacher.

It is arguably even easier to find material for this, too. Just choose a news article, blog post or book in the target language, and read away. Read carefully, mindfully, taking in the meaning and not just producing the sounds. Try reading with a different voice, with a different intonation, varying your pitch and your volume. Play with the sounds. There is no shame in being silly with it, either. Let go of all of your inhibitions! This can be a brilliant way to defuse pre-conversation nerves, too.

Although any new website will do really, I particularly like Olly Richard’s Short Stories series for this. Each chapter is short enough to go over completely ten or so minutes before a lesson.

Above all, enjoy!

Lastly, remember why you do this. If it starts to feel stressful, give yourself a break. Nobody expects perfection.

Take some extra time to prepare. Chat to your teacher beforehand about your misgivings and agree a framework to take the fear out of completely free speaking. Share some of these techniques with your teacher – especially the Bingo Sheets – so they can also partake in the fun!

Above all, enjoy.

I hope these tips and tricks help your lessons go swimmingly. How else do you like to prepare for practice conversations? Let us know in the comments!

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

It’s the Little Things : Serendipity and Lockdown Learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what has this to do with language learning?

technically magic little things

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

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

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

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

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

Tidy little things

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

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

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

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

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

Is there anything more satisfying than reorganising your home library?

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

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

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

Audible Again : Rediscovering Lost Love

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

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

Lost that loving feeling

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

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

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

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

Audible Actually

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

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

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

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

Clandestine interests

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

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

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

Happy endings

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

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

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

Boxsets of DVDs on a shelf

New joy from old DVDs : The resources under our noses

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

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

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

A treasure of DVDs

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

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

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

DVDs can offer a generous helping of foreign language soundtracks.

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

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

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

Old school benefits

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

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

Lost… again

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

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

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

Ethical economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening: The dreaded monster

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

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

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

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

Prediction exercises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TTS can lend your learning some robotic voice magic. Image by Oliver Brandt on FreeImages.com

Disembodied Voices : Using TTS as a Native Speaker Boost

Native speaker modelling is a prerequisite for learning to speak Modern Foreign Languages. But when listening materials are scarce, or you struggle to find exactly the material you want to learn, then text-to-speech (TTS) can lend a helping hand.

Text-to-speech : native speakers out of thin air

TTS, or speech synthesis, has come on in leaps and bounds since the early days of tinny Speak ‘n’ Spell voices. At first mimicking chiefly (American) English, many projects have since diversified to conjure native speaker voices in many languages out of thin air. Polyglot TTS technologies such as Google Cloud’s offering are at the edge of machine learning developments, and sounding more and more human all the time.

Using these disembodied tongues for language learning is nothing new, of course. Switching the language of your digital voice assistant has become a pretty well-known polyglot trick for some robotic speaking practice. Siri has been speaking fluent Bokmål on my phone for a while now. As a result, I’ve become a dab hand at asking what the weather will be like in Norwegian!

TTS Toolkit

But as handy as voice assistants are, you can leverage the power of TTS much more directly than tapping into Siri or Alexa. At its most basic level, plain old TTS is brilliantly useful for hearing a spoken representation of a word or phrase you are unsure of.

For example, if you are tired of guessing how to reel off “das wäre sehr schön” in German (that would be very nice), never fear. Simply paste it into Google Translate and hit the speaker icon. The platform already offers and impressive number of languages with speech support.

Google Translate offers TTS features.

Google Translate offers TTS features – simply type / paste in your target language and click the speaker icon.

But it gets even better. Several other resources allow you to do more than just listen; they offer a download function too. This way, you can keep your most useful speech synthesis files and incorporate them into your own materials. Combined with vocabulary mining tools such as mass-sentence site Tatoeba, you can begin to curate large, offline collections of target language material with text and audio.

One notable and powerful multilingual voice synthesis site is TTSMP3.com. For a start, it offers plenty of language options. On top of that, several languages include a choice of voices, too.  More than enough to sate your curiosity when you wonder “How do you say that?”.

With a little Google digging, you may also find specialist TTS projects devoted to your particular language of study. For instance, Irish learners are spoilt by the Abair website (Abair means ‘say’ in Irish). Not only does it provide downloadable Irish narration, but it does this in a choice of three different regional accents. If you learn Irish too, you will well know what a godsend this is!

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Incorporating TTS MP3s

With your MP3s downloaded, you can now incorporate them into your own resources. Easiest of all is simply to insert them as media in PowerPoint presentations or Word documents. I personally like to add them manually to Anki cards to add audio support when I revise vocabulary.

The quick and easy way to reach Anki’s media folder on the desktop program is to open up the Preferences panel, then the Backups tab, and finally to tap the “Open backup folder” link that appears. In the same location as that backup directory, you should see another folder with the name collection.media. Anything you put in here will be synced along with the rest of your Anki data.

Note: always back up your Anki decks before tinkering in the program folders!

Anki's media folder

Anki’s media folder

Drop your saved TTS files into this folder. Note that subfolders still don’t seem to work reliably, so keep everything in that single folder. Logical file naming will definitely help!

Finally, when you create / edit a vocabulary note, use the following format to add your sound as a playable item, replacing filename as appropriate:

[sound:filename.mp3]

When viewed on your device, you should see a play button on flashcards with embedded sounds. Magic!

Anki card with embedded sound

An Anki card with embedded sound

If you prefer an even easier route, then there is an Anki plugin specially created for automatically including TTS into notes. I prefer the manual method, as it satisfies the the tech control freak in me.

A human touch

Of course, TTS is not a perfect substitute for a native speaker recording. For those times when only a human voice will do, Forvo is a goldmine. The site is replete with native sounds across a dizzying array of languages, all recorded by native speaker volunteers. Just as with the TTS examples above, the sounds can be downloaded for use in your own resources, too.

To round off our trek through native speaker sites – real and synthesised – just a final note on copyright. If you intend to share the resources you create, always check the usage notes of the website of origin. Sites commonly have fair use policies for non-commercial projects, so making resources for personal use is usually not a problem at all. If you plan to sell your resources, though, you may well need to opt for a commercial plan with the respective platform.

Robotic resources can plug a real gap in native speaker support, especially for niche languages, or niche subjects in more mainstream ones. Do you use TTS in innovative ways in your own learning? Have you come across other specialist or language-specific TTS projects? If so, please share in the comments!

Beginner CD resources can help you audit your accent as an advanced learner. Image from freeimages.com

Revisiting beginner resources for an accent audit

We all have languages we are proud of, languages we’ve worked hard at over the years. I count Norwegian as one of those. One I chose, rather than had thrust upon me at school, it’s something I’ve kept chugging away at, always returning to over the years of learning. Via various courses, resources and plentiful podcasts, I’ve worked my way to a fairly decent B1/2. Well, depending on what I’m talking about, of course: I’m probably a C1 when talking about Eurovision!

Bargain Resources: fantastic finds or faux pas?

With those core languages, those labours of love, we never really stop learning. Even today, I am forever on the lookout for fresh resources, particularly audio courses. There is always something new to glean from a shiny new tome or CD. Imagine my delight when, in a Dublin bookshop, I spotted a real bargain: the CD course Keep Talking Norwegian from Teach Yourself, for just €10!

I realised my mistake afterwards. I’d glanced at it, got excited at Norwegian in the title, and assumed it was another title I’d had my eye on for a while: the B1-2 resource from Teach Yourself, Enjoy Norwegian. But the book I’d excitedly snapped up was for upper beginners, barely A1.

Oops.

Now, a bit of modesty is essential in language learning. There is always something else to learn; we can never say we have completely learnt a language. But as an intermediate learner who already listens comfortably to Norwegian podcasts like Språkteigen, I was initially miffed at my seemingly less-than-useful accidental purchase. It represented a bit of a change of gear, to say the least.


An easy mistake?

Making the best of it

Never one to be deterred by calamity, I got thinking about how to make the best of my mistaken purchase. And it turns out that beginner resources are far from useless, even as an advanced learner.

Audit your accent

Entry-level listening materials represent clear, deliberate pronunciation. As such, they act as a model for newcomers to the sounds of a language. But jumping back into those beginner dialogues is also a great opportunity to audit your current accent habits.

Use that considered speech model to interrogate your own voice. Are there certain sounds that you have fallen into bad habits with? Do you detect any difference between how you pronounce certain sounds compared to the native speaker model? Are there words that you perhaps didn’t realise you were stressing incorrectly?

One remedied niggle in my case was the Norwegian au-sound. Probably due to interference from other languages, I’d fallen into a slightly lazy, un-Norwegian pronunciation of this very characteristic standard Bokmål vowel combination. Lost in a wood of words, it was a problematic tree that I failed to see when listening to complex, flowing, everyday speech. But returning to slow, careful models of speech was enough to give me a push back in the right direction.

Accent awareness

As models for learners, basic resources can be a good reminder of what is considered standard in your language, too. You may well have deviated from this through exposure to multiple varieties, and this is no bad thing: accent and dialect make languages all the richer. But reacquainting yourself with the form designated the norm (and recognising that is a politically contentious idea in itself) will only strengthen your mental map of the language.

As an advanced learner, you have so many more examples to draw on from experience. This enables you to critique and dissect the recordings in a way that would never have been possible in your early days as a learner.

Listening to novice materials, you may surprise yourself by the observations you now make. In Norwegian, for example, accents differ on their pronunciation of the letter r – rolled or guttural. It can be satisfying to spot quirks like this in starter-level resources, and realise something exciting: you have progressed enough not only to understand words and phrases, but actually pinpoint varieties in the world space of your language.

Practise, practise, practise

Finally – and this is impossible to understate – nobody’s knowledge is ever perfect, complete, or even immune to the passage of time. It is sometimes sobering to dip back into these early resources and catch the odd forgotten (or missed) foundation word or phrase.

This utility of revisiting beginner resources is also why a regular wallow in Duolingo can be so handy, even for languages we are supposed to ‘know already’. And embracing that as a tactic is a step towards building a healthy. practical modesty as a language learner that never sees you resting on your laurels!

So, it seems, my accidental purchase wasn’t such a disaster after all. It makes sense to actively seek out these kinds of material for a regular accent audit. And at the point we have eked out all the use we can from them, well, why not pass it forward and donate them to another eager polyglot-in-the-making?