Shrinking violet? You are not alone as a shy linguist! Image of flowers from freeimages.com

He Killed Them with Flowers : Remembering Vocabulary Oddly

If you’ve been following my language learning journey, you’ll know what a keen mnemonic hunter I am. I experiment with all sorts of tricks for making vocab stick, all of it involving spotting patterns and making connections between words. Some of my favourite techniques include linkword, humour and rhyme.  In essence, anything that makes a word or phrase salient – giving it the weight to stand out – is a great memory device.

Death By Flowers

I was lucky this week then, as a pair of Swahili oddities fell into my lap. It’s an unusual correspondence between two quite different words:

  • ua (flower)
  • -ua (to kill)

First of all, it got me wondering whether they were actually from the same root, but through some twisted process of meaning change, they diverged. Maybe the original sense was ‘bloom’ and ‘kill’ was some metaphoric extension meaning “cause blood to ‘bloom’ (burst forth) from the body”.

I know, I know – what a weird imagination I have. That said, the idea can’t be that weird, as the Proto-Germanic for bleed is sometimes conjectured as arising through that very same metaphor.

Digging Up The Roots

But alas, in Swahili it was too fanciful by far. As it turns out, ua and -ua come from quite separate roots in Proto-Bantu:

Clearly a lot has happened to grind those words down to the same form over the centuries. But that leaves us with a correspondence that can help us tie the two together, and ultimately recall them perfectly. For my own mental image, I’ve constructed the phrase ‘aliwaua na maua‘ (he killed them with flowers), which neatly fulfils the bizarreness criteria for salient vocab memories. Oh – and it rhymes, too! I won’t forget either of those words in a hurry now.

The moral of the tale? Look out for oddities and weird coincidences in your target languages. They’re a gift for making lasting vocab memories.

Christmas is coming! Make it a language learning one.

Christmas Gifts for Language Lovers : 2020 Edition

It’s here again! And if you’re struggling for Christmas gifts for language-loving friends (or yourself!), you’re in the right place. Let me fill you in on a couple of the more exciting goodies 2020 has to offer.

Virtual Christmas

2020 was the year that Virtual Reality became portable and affordable. And the fantastic Oculus 2 Quest headset is more than just a fancy gaming device – it has real potential for language learners.

Whether for roaming far-off locations in Wander, or adventuring in German, Japanese, Spanish or more, it’s a whole new world out there. And given the year we’ve all had, getting out and about virtually might be just what the doctor ordered.

More Books (Because… Well, Books!)

Every year, there are always a few juicy new titles out for language lovers. This year saw the expansion of the quite wonderful “Short Stories In…” series by Olly Richards, including Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian and Swedish. An absolute dream for Nordic nerds like me!

Even more excitingly, they are available as audiobooks from Audible, making them perfect reading and listening pairs for learners. For next year’s Christmas list, I’m asking Language Santa for versions in Greek and Polish, please…

Disney+ Subscription

Consuming media translated into our target languages has long been a favourite pastime in the polyglot community. I’ve lost count of how many fellow linguists have enjoyed the Harry Potter books in multiple translations.

Disney, too, is a frequent favourite – and who doesn’t love a cute Disney animated classic? Lucky for us, then, that Disney+ makes them available with a generous selection of foreign language soundtracks. Plenty more, in fact, than Netflix seems to offer on its range of shows.

It’s my mum’s gift to the family this year (thanks Mum!), and already I’ve been getting lost in the likes of Norwegian Aladdin, German Beauty and the Beast and more. Happy, cutesy, language Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

However you spend this year’s holiday, have a wonderful one. I’ll be spending a good chunk of the downtime on my languages, as I’m sure most of us will. Well, that, and the odd mince pie. Merry Christmas!

Lots of question marks. Don't be afraid to ask questions! Image by Kerbstone, FreeImages.com

Stupid Questions : Learn to Love Getting Stuff Wrong

“There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers.” That nugget of wisdom, often attributed to Carl Sagan, reminds us to keep seeking knowledge, even if we make (sometimes very public) mistakes.

And nothing feels more public and exposed than whole group or class teaching. That gut-churning anticipation will be familiar to most of us. Waiting your turn to speak in front of your peers, especially on new subjects we are only just getting to grips with, can really bring out the sweats!

Back into the Fray

Lately, I’ve had to contend with it all again myself. I’ve side-stepped back into uni study with a brand new subject. Exciting, but just a bit scary when you’re in a class with others who seem so confident and clued up already. 

No matter that the group is just ten or so fellow students. The pressure to get it right and sound, at least vaguely, like I know what I’m talking about, feels immense each session. I listen closely, half-formulate a handful of ideas, but feel afraid to let them out. Maybe it will just be incoherent babble? Maybe I will be outed as the one in class who doesn’t quite get it? If I ask my stupid questions, will my cover be blown?

By the time I’ve worked out what I’ll say, how I’ll say it, and somehow found the nerve to try, somebody else has taken the mic.

Lessons from Languages

I’d have left it at that, perhaps, struggling along with my impostor syndrome, if it hadn’t been for the flip-side of that very experience at the same time. For as well as that brand new subject, I also started a course in something totally new, but also very familiar: a language learning class.

That language is Swahili, a language which is quite a departure for me. Now, I have zero experience with Bantu languages. Nearly all my language learning experience is with Indo-European tongues. In short, I come to class with very little pre-knowledge – much like my other course above.

The difference?

I have no fear speaking out and asking questions – even if I’m not 100% sure of myself!

Any Questions?

So there I was, every week, dreading my non-language class, whilst looking forward to my conversation class in equal measure. I had to get to the bottom of this to garner some tips to carry over to the other class. I needed to find out what was so different about Swahili class. And it is something very particular to language learning:

Embracing the art of getting it wrong.

After years of evenings classes and iTalki lessons, I’m used to just giving it a go. I try to speak up whenever I can, even if what I say isn’t perfect. Chiefly, it’s wanting to make the most of the chance to communicate, which is the joy of learning together. We throw things out there – they may not be perfectly formed – but then, with the instructor, we bash them around until they start to take on a neater shape.

With languages in particular, there is that extra veil of difficulty. It’s the notion that languages are generally just a bit harder, a bit more challenging. After all, they involve whole new ways of communicating. That challenge somehow makes us more accepting of the fact that we’ll stumble repeatedly. But in reality, those other subjects that scare us are also new ways to communicate too. We shouldn’t be surprised if they also take some trial and error.

Accepting that makes the whole business of asking questions – whether you think they are stupid or not – a lot less high stakes.

Get Stuff Wrong!

So how to take this forward? Remember that nobody expects perfection from students. After all, if students were perfect, there would be no need for classes and professors. If you’ve done the lesson prep and homework, you have more than enough to guide your questions and contributions.

This isn’t about simply not caring whether you’re right or wrong. Rather, it’s finding the fun and utility in getting things wrong. When we make mistakes, we laugh about them in class. Not malicious or mean laughter, but a knowing giggle – yes, it’s funny to mix up the words for mango and person, but we’ll never forget them again after that.

Learn to love getting stuff wrong – those stupid questions are actually a fast track to improvement.

Perfectionism pushes us to strive for order, but perhaps a little chaos is sometimes helpful. Image from freeimages.com

Perfectionism and the Control Monster

Perfectionism is a wily demon. And it stalks the language learning community with a particularly bloodthirsty enthusiasm.

Halloween seems the perfect time to address this perfidious little monster lurking in our midst. For while it can tempt us to embrace it, driving us towards mastery (mainly through fear), it can make us very inflexible, too.

Perfectionism is an extension of a need for control. Control, in fact, is so integral to the perfectionist’s outlook, that it features as a defining characteristic for perfectionists as far back at Cattell’s famed personality questionnaire. As such, perfectionists find it really threatening when unpredictable outside variables are added to the mix.

And the most unpredictable? Other people.

The Perfectionism Challenge

Imagine my butterflies, then, when I, a self-confessed and chronic perfectionist, learned that I had to work with someone else on an academic assessment recently. The horror, the horror. And just as I cynically predicted, my random partner wasn’t a carbon copy of me. Different priorities, different attitudes, different approach… Wringing my hands in despair, I cast a glance to the sky a let out a shrill whyyyyyyyyy?

Early signs set off all of my alarms. I contacted my partner ten days in advance of the deadline; my partner preferred to leave it until the deadline was upon us. I wanted to break the task into chunks and work out a plan; my partner preferred a more organic, on-the-spot approach. This did not bode well, I thought.

You know what, though? It somehow came together.

The fact that we ended up with something coherent and submissible made me question my own stress and hyper-focus leading up to the task. There was something even a bit – dare I say it – more human about the result, which it might have lacked if it had been robotically perfect. Could it be that I might sometimes take things too seriously for my own good?

Perish the thought!

Bursting Bubbles

We do need our bubbles bursting once in a while. Being closed off to outside influence isn’t a good recipe for personal growth. And grow, we did: we grafted together a piece of work that was unique, rather than a continuation of the same old theme.

The end product demonstrated more than just an ability to memorise and regurgitate foreign language material. It showed an ability to communicate, in all its messy glory. After all, by its nature, language learning is about communicating with others. It could be just what the doctor ordered to get a dose of good old chaos now and again.

It’s no surprise that perfectionism and learner independence go hand in hand. But leave a door open to the rest of the world, too.

Owls chatting. Photo by Ross Dismore, freeimages.com

Battle of the Owls: Duolingo vs. Glossika

You have to hand it to the owls.

For a start, they’re wise. And they love learning. Well, at least in educational lore, having long been considered symbols of all things academic. They make very apt representatives for our language learning knowledge quests. Little wonder then, that two popular language platforms, Duolingo and Glossika, have adopted our feathered friends as their respective mascots.

On the surface they might not appear particularly alike. Different breeds of owl, if you like. But the contrasting plumage hides a strong family resemblance. In fact, their approaches to teaching languages are very similar. Both teach via a vast bank of sample sentences, incorporating spaced repetition techniques to lodge vocab and structures in memory. Both platforms employ a similar listen-read-type system to drill three of the four core language learning skills. And both offer an impressive (and growing) array of languages. For their different colours, those owls are quite alike (although we’re sure they would deny it vociferously!).

So, in a battle of the owls, who comes out on top?

Pricing

Let’s get this one out of the way first: they follow very different access models. All Duolingo content is free to access, with a paid tier to remove ads if required. Those ads aren’t too intrusive, however, simply sandwiched between lessons.

On the other hand, Glossika is subscription-based. The price tag of up to $30 a month will seem like a hefty price for many. That said, there always seems to be some discount code floating around the internet for Glossika, so with save with some internet sleuthing. Students can also get special pricing of $13.50 a month.

Glossika has an extra-special secret, though. Minority languages under a degree of threat are completely free to learn. In fact, Glossika’s free Gaelic course was the route that led me to the platform in the first place. In addition, you can learn Catalan, Hakka (Hailu and Sixian), Kurdish, Manx, Taiwanese Hokkien, Welsh and Wenzhounese (Wu) via the technique for not a penny. These are full courses, featuring the same sentence set as the platform’s mainstream languages. 

🦉 Free is hard to beat, but Glossika’s admirable ethos of supporting endangered languages makes this one a draw.

Mass Sentences

Arguably, the price of Glossika is justified by its quite unique offering. Namely, its bank of thousands of sentences per language are no arbitrary choice. They represent high-frequency vocabulary and language patterns that support fluency training. It is a purposeful, statistics-driven mass-sentence technique.

In the face of this, Duolingo’s approach certainly feels a little more random. One of the frequent criticisms levelled at the platform target its plethora of often silly and whacky example sentences. It depends on the learner, of course. Personally, I love the strange and bizarre phrases that crop up in Duolingo exercises. They make for a greater salience in the learning material, and salience is the friend of memory.

And we should consider another aspect here: Glossika rolls out more or less the same set of sentences for every language. One the one hand, this is great for keeping your languages in sync as a kind of language audit. On the other, it leads to some minor irritations. For example, names and places are not translated, which is a missed opportunity to introduce some cultural material. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve silently cursed when having to type Ταϊπέι (Taipei) into Glossika in Greek.

By comparison, Duolingo fully embraces difference. The recent Finnish course, for example, celebrates uniquely local terms like sisu, and introduces a raft of common Finnish names. Likewise, the Norwegian and Swedish courses are celebrated by fans for their wry take on Scandinavian life. Of course, the fresh take on every language does mean that the courses do not match up in any shape or form. Trying to keep your polyglot knowledge in sync? You’re on your own.

🦉 Close, but let’s call that one another draw. This race is neck-and-neck!

Order, Order!

Mass-sentence cramming makes no sense without a clear progression in level. Both platforms steer the user through a well-defined path that increases in difficulty. However, Duolingo allows for a bit of freedom in user choice. Learners can progress to the next topic after levelling up to just the first of five experience levels (although many of us prefer to gold them up first).

Glossika, on the other hand, is less flexible; you have to work the list of sentences through exactly as the program intends. There is some leeway, though. You can choose to start at any of Glossika’s language-ladder checkpoints. If the basics are too simple, skip ahead to B1 – simple. What’s more, you can choose to ignore sentences you deem unhelpful or not useful as you work through them.

Glossika’s one-size-fits-all ethos is its undoing again here, though. As the sentence corpus is ordered identically for each language, you end up seeing quite complex structures in certain languages very early on. The reason simply seems to be that languages more recently added to the platform map differently onto English compared to Glossika’s original set of languages. Thus, they lack the one-to-one, simple correspondence to basic phrases in English that these first languages have in the beginners’ levels.

In A1 Gaelic, for example, some complex, idiosyncratic structures pop up within the first hundred sentences. Unlike languages like French and Spanish, Gaelic does not use a standard, vanilla verb for ‘to know’. Instead, periphrastic structures are used. The relatively straightforward English sentence “I know lots of people” is rendered in Glossika’s translation as “Is aithne dhomsa tòrr dhaoine” (literally, knowledge is to me of many people). There is no explanation of how this structure works – it is simply presented as is. However, it encompasses features like prepositional pronouns and the genitive case, which probably belong in intermediate-level grammar material. In contrast, Duolingo units are generally tailored to language-specific grammar points, with accompanying notes on usage.

🦉 I declare this a win for the green owl.

Error Catching

The two platforms have a wholly different take on error catching, too. Duolingo is the more forgiving of the two, allowing the odd typo in an answer. Glossika takes a much stricter approach, demanding exact spelling, accurate diacritics and even on-point punctuation before accepting an answer. Which side you take in this battle depends on how much a stickler for perfection you are.

One minor niggle, however, is Glossika’s pickiness for speech marks. To my mind, punctuation is of least concern when learning a language. However, leave out a comma, or use an exclamation mark instead of a full-stop, and Glossika marks an answer incorrect. It can be incredibly frustrating to repeat an exercise because of this.

In short, I find myself in the middle of this debate. Duolingo is a bit too forgiving; I’ve noticed it accept some quite liberal interpretations of Gaelic spelling! On the other hand, Glossika seems like a rather mean master at times.

Helping hands

Glossika pulls it all back with one nifty quirk, though: you can leave accents out. Purists will throw their hands up in horror at the very thought. But in the very early stages of learning, this can be a real boon. It’s hard enough for a beginner to remember where the accents come in  “στον σιδηροδρομικό σταθμό” (to the railway station) without stressing about stressing!

Glossika also edges ahead on alternative input. Some Duolingo courses in non-Latin alphabet languages allow for Latin alpha input, but support is not always complete, as with Greeklish. Conversely, Latin keyboard support is solid across Glossika’s language offerings. And even within Latin alphabet languages, there are helping hands – you can substitute Icelandic ð with d and þ with th, if you really struggle with foreign keyboard layouts, for example.

Of course it makes sense, in the long run, to learn how to type in Greek, Russian and so on. But it’s nice to have the option to get off to a quicker start.

🦉 The owls are evenly matched here, it seems, but they could both learn from each other.

Voices

With listening skills being, for many, the biggest challenge in language learning, speech is everything. How platforms approach the production of native sounds can be a deal-clincher.

Glossika is exclusively human in this respect. Every recording is a native speaker. That is an important consideration for many learners, who prefer human voices over digital text-to-speech. Usually, the same speaker narrates the whole course, but on other courses (Polish, for example), different voice artists are used.

The downside to that, of course, is that sometimes, a voice will grate. As for me, I’m not overly keen on the choice of Icelandic voice. On the other hand, I find the Greek voice is really neutral and pleasant to listen to. It is very much pot luck.

On the other side of the coin, we have text-to-speech, which has come a long way since its early days. Duolingo makes a lot of use of this technology in many of its courses (although some, like Gaelic, Irish and Swahili, still use recordings of human speakers). The benefit to TTS is a smooth, very neutral voice in the target language, as opposed to occasionally, decidedly hit-and-miss recordings in the others. And the digital standard has not stood still – recently, the platform updated its Norwegian and Polish voices, which both now sound even more natural.

🦉 A lot of this is down to personal preference. Yet another draw?

Community

Finally, the true mettle of a platform may well lie in its users. And – spoiler alert – here is where Duolingo plays a real blinder.

Duolingo’s forum has always been a lively place, thanks largely to its armies of users. But the outfit makes particularly clever use of this by layering the forum on top of the actual content. Every single sentence is linked to a discussion thread where users can talk and ask question about it. An active bunch of moderators keep tabs on everything, which means that it’s never long before you get that explanation you really need to understand a structure. The result is an incredibly finely granulated repository of learning content. Kudos to the platform for spotting the potential of that.

Now, Glossika does have a well-maintained blog, which is open for comments and discussion, as well as a Facebook user group. But the level of interaction achieved on Duolingo is hard to beat.

🦉 Hands down, Duolingo won this match.

Joining Forces

Despite that last resounding victory, I have to admit it: those owls are pretty evenly matched on the whole. No twit (twoo) here. Duolingo and Glossika do similar things in subtly different ways, and thereby manage to complement each other nicely. That’s the reason both of them are essential items in my own daily language learning tactics.

And perhaps that is the ultimate lesson to learn in all of this. By joining forces and creating an app arsenal, we are much more likely to smash those language learning goals. The moral of the tale?

Two owls are always better than one.

What are your favourite aspects of these platforms? Or do you combine other apps that complement each other in similar ways? Let us know in the comments!

– no background info on each translation, which is problematic – for example, are we learning polite or familiar ‘you’ in some sentences?
+ presented with several ways to say the same thing – some say that shows real mastery! From Gaelic, for example, a’ sileadh and an t-uisge, snog and gasta, acrach and an t-acras air, sìde and aimsir.

Northern Rift Valley, Tanzania. Swahili is one of Tanzania's national languages. Picture by Barbara Schneider of freeimages.com

Swahili Safari: First Steps on a Brand New Language Journey

I’ve been saying for a while that it’s high time I diversified my language outlook. And as of on cue, the chance fell into my lap this month. My MSc Linguistics programme includes a 20-credit introductory Swahili module. Asante!

Swahili makes a lot of sense to me as a credit option. For a start, Bantu languages seem to pop up with regular frequency as examples in the phonology literature. They seem interesting to linguists because they are different, and relatively less well-covered than the ‘mainstream’ bunch of tongues studied in schools, colleges and universities. They offer a chance to observe phonological processes at work in a fresh (to us) environment, without the bias of the all-too familiar.

But there’s also the reason why those language are unfamiliar in the first place: the relative invisibility of African languages in Western educational settings. My instincts draw me to Indo-European studies because they are familiar, comfortable, safe. The reason? The choice to study an African language was never part of the traditional offering. At secondary school, it was either French or German; even Spanish was a stretch. And just try finding resources on Swahili, Yoruba or Xhosa at a bookshop in 1993! As a result, I spent my formative language learning years blind to a huge swathe of the world’s languages.

Here was an opportunity to do something about that.

Defamiliarising the Familiar

Admittedly, the cultural barrier has never been entirely watertight. Western bias aside, some elements of Swahili have managed to slip into the international repertoire. In fact, many English speakers will have come across a little of the language already without realising it.

The word safari, for example, found its way into English via Swahili (although there, its meaning is journey, and it was an Arabic loan before that). What’s more, Disney’s The Lion King popularised phrases like hakuna matata (no worries) and even words like simba (lion) through character names. Through popular culture, you may have come across the greeting jambo, too.

But jambo nicely illustrates how imperfect that cultural cross-pollination can be. It turns out that jambo is not found on its own colloquially. Instead, it is just a simplification to teach the tourists. Meaning literally matter or affair, it is usually incorporated into phrases like hujambo (roughly ‘don’t you have anything?‘) and the reply sijambo (‘I don’t have anything‘) in everyday use.

But to my ear, that simplification says a lot; it says that even native speakers assume that visitors won’t want to spend time and effort on the language. It’s an assumption of disinterest, one backed up by reality. This tourist is that half-interested outsider, rooted in the comfortable elsewhere, here for the show but unwilling to engage too closely.

Lesson one: try not to sound like a tourist.

Thinking Differently

Meeting the intricacy of the language head-on is an excellent way to do that. And as you delve deeper, one of the most rewarding aspects of stepping away from the familiar is the discovery of other ways that human beings do language.

In many Indo-European languages, for example, we are used to noun classification by gender: masculine, feminine and (sometimes) neuter. Swahili has classes and corresponding agreement too – just not along gender lines. Instead, there are nine noun groups (eighteen if you count singular-plural separately) that are roughly organised by meaning, and have characteristic prefixes. They come in singular-plural pairs, such as the first one, m-/wa-, which tends to group together ‘people’ nouns. For instance, we have:

mtu person watu people
mtoto child watoto children
mkenya Kenyan person wakenya Kenyan people

Then there is the m-/mi- class, which groups inanimate objects (but also plants, groups of people and animals, as well as body parts):

mti tree miti trees
mguu leg/foot miguu legs/feet

With their rough division based on objective traits, they remind me a little of Chinese quantifying words, which sort objects along similar lines (long things, things that come in pairs, collectible things and so on).

But more than anything, the prefix system turns what we might think from a purely Indo-European bubble on its head: nouns being marked for meaning by changing at the beginning, rather than the end.

Learn Your Verb… Beginnings?

It turns out that Swahili likes this front-loading pattern. We see it in verbs, too, which speakers conjugate through tightly ordered prefixes on word-final stems. Take the verb ‘see‘ in English, for example, which has the stem -ona in Swahili. Here are a few finite forms from that stem:

niliona ni li ona
I saw I past tense marker verb stem
ninaona ni na ona
I see I present tense marker verb stem
nitaona ni ta ona
I will see I future tense marker verb stem

There is even a further slot (just after the tense marker) that can agree with the verb’s object. Being so used to endings, learning to think the other way round is quite refreshing.

And geekily, linguistically thrilling!

Swahili Safari

So there it is: the beginning of my Swahili safari. Just a week of the language has begun to fill in the gaps in a knowledge I only now realise was so incomplete, so localised. Already, it is lending a bit of colour to my first steps in formal phonology and morphology. And maybe, these first observations of an excited (and easily excitable) budding linguist are enough to tempt you to step into the unfamiliar, too.

Or even tempt others – in these days of flipped classrooms and independent learning, perhaps we can focus on teaching kids generalised language learning skills, then give them that truly open choice we missed out on ourselves.

It doesn’t have to be Swahili, of course. It is enough to have the choice of all available paths on our journey.

Just enjoy the safari!

Intonation adds a thousand different colours to speech. Coloured glass. Image by Simon Jackson on FreeImages.com

Intonation Training: From Yam-Yam to Yia Sou

When you meet me, one of the first things you notice is probably my accent. Despite being embedded in Scottish life for over a decade, there’s still an unmistakeable Midlands lilt that persists. The vowels have flattened out to something a little more neutral over the years, it’s true. But it’s in my intonation that you can still hear the imprint of my roots.

Midlands accents get a bad rap. Full-on Brummie, for instance, still battles to be taken seriously after years of parodies and comedy sketches. And the baggage that people attach to your variety of speech can weigh you down. That pressure is one reason many of us subconsciously begin to change our distinctive sounds when we move away from our home regions.

One thing has proven extremely resistant, though – that characteristic rise and fall, up-and-down, sing-song intonation of my West Midlands English. In the Black Country, where I grew up, that particularly strong swinging tone has given us some national fame as yam-yams (most probably from the local form “ya’m” for “you are“). The almost musical nature of it is something it has in common with certain varieties of Welsh English.

But as endearing as it can be to us locals, it can play havoc with your foreign language learning.

Intonation and Learning Foreign Languages

The reason is the same phonological interplay that anchors our foreign language speech to our native phonology. Just as much as our vowel shapes and consonant articulation, intonation is highly ingrained in our oral muscle memory.

The unwelcome interference stuck out like a sore thumb in my recent learning on the mass sentence training platform Glossika, which I’ve been using to improve my fluency in a couple of language projects. The great thing about this platform is the chance to compare your own pronunciation with native speakers’ renditions. But be prepared: it can be very revealing. I realised that my intonation in Greek – especially in questions – was completely off.

What was going on?

Well, it all comes down to my deeply rooted Midlands twang. The tendency I carry over from my own native accent is to go up at the end of a sentence. That’s not just in questions, either. If you listen to Midlands English, you might well notice that our intonation rises at the end of nearly every sentence!

Not so with Greek. Often, the intonation will fall after rising towards the end of a yes-no question. It’s a bit more complex than that, of course, and there is much more detail in studies like this one if you need the nitty gritty. But generally, it is quite a bit different from English (especially mine).

Training It Out

The solution, of course, is more of the tool that shed light on the problem. Plenty of reps later on Glossika, and my question intonation is starting to improve considerably.

Repetition is the key, here. And if you don’t have access to Glossika, it’s not difficult to make your own DIY solution using the mass sentence technique. First of all, you need to source neatly chunked, model sentences in audio format. This can be surprisingly easy to come across. Many phrase books, for example, come with an accompanying CD or MP3 download links. Often, this material is available for download without even buying the book. Audio support for German publisher PONS’ mini courses, like this Croatian introductory text, is one such freely available resource. Multilingual sentence repository Tatoeba also includes many native recordings for its entries.

Once located, you can organise the material as a playlist in the player app of your choice. Having them loop round on a reel isn’t far off doing audio-only reps with a rep tool like Glossika. While it won’t quite follow the very effective, high-frequency high-representation corpus method of that site, it isn’t a bad substitute to give the technique a try in working on your intonation. There’s a plus side to phrase books, too; they tend to include lots of questions, which is ideal if you also struggle with that particular aspect.

Bit by bit, my up-and-downy Midlands intonation is disappearing from my Greek. It’s a lot less yam-yam, and a lot more yia sou. As for my English? I’m older and wiser enough now to stand up for my accent. I’ll carry that intonation with pride – as long as it leaves my other languages alone!

Rodin's statue The Thinker. Perhaps he is thinking about Language Learning? Image from freeimages.com.

Language Learning Faultlines : When Words Diverge

I had a language learning breakthrough this week. I finally got a handle on the two verbs for ‘to think’ in Greek: νομίζω (nomízo) and σκέφτομαι (skéftomai). Unlike the all-purpose English term, Greek is more discerning. It uses the former for general, more superficial matters of thinking and and opining. The latter, however, refers to the more serious business of deep cognitive processes.

The matter of different kinds of thinking is a distinction I should be used to, mind. Students of Norwegian must also get used to English ‘think’ spreading out across multiple translations. There is tenke – the actual process of thought. But then you have synes, to have an opinion about something. And tro, to believe, pops up where we might be tempted to use that catch-all think in English, too. That’s a hefty three-way split!

Well, all this thinking, it got me thinking. There are a fair few cases where English collapses meanings into a single lexical item, while other languages distrubute the nuances across different terms. Could English be a bit… woolly?

Woolly Friends

Woolliness of English certainly does rear its head from time to time. Just look at the word friend, which is a tricky one for English speakers learning Polish. It is tempting to head to the dictionary and lift przyjaciel as a direct word-for-word translation. But przyjaciel is a lot stronger than the pretty wide-ranging catchment of friend. Rather, znajomy or kolega are more appropriate choices in Polish, however cool and detached the literal translations acquaintance and colleague might sound to anglophones!

That said, it is impossible to make judgements when comparing these imperfectly aligned terms. The differences just are. Language learning discoveries like this do allow us to look at our own language critically, though. Do we overuse friend in English? Perhaps. But sometimes that ambiguity is quite useful – especially when hedging our friendship bets. And what of Icelandic’s multiple words for animal tail? We might scoff, but someone, somewhere must find that a useful division!

Knowing Me, Knowing That

Of course, we have to mention the classic terms mismatch. This is the one most school linguists will get to know through French, German or Spanish. And it is extremely common in Indo-European languages. It is the infamous know vs. know faultline, and a Twitter discussion on this pair is probably what got me thinking (yes, back to thinking) about this whole topic a few weeks ago.

Plenty of languages distinguish between knowing a fact and knowing a person. We have savoir / connaître (French), wissen / kennen (German), wiedzieć / znać (Polish) and saber / conocer (Spanish), to name but a few pairs. Others, conversely, collapse the two kinds of knowing into one, just like English does. Greek simply has ξέρω (kséro). Russian has знать (znat’).

Shaking hands and language learning. Image from freeimages.com

I know you, but do I know you? Image from freeimages.com

English, of course, used to make a distinction, as did other languages which lost the split. Before today’s know, Old English had witan and cunnan. Elsewhere, English has quietly dropped other nuanced pairs in this way. Take ask and ask for, referring to slightly different actions, but using the same verb. Look to a close cousin of English, like Norwegian, and they are separate terms: spørre (to ask, for example, a question) and be (to request, ask for something). Needless to say, Old English had both āscian and biddan before the former encroached upon the space of both.

Time to Come Home

We can round off this little wander through mismatched pairs with a couple of fairly fundamental human concepts with a lot of variation: time and home. Now, full-on linguistic determinism has had a bit of a drubbing. But while we may not experience these concepts differently from human to human, we still like to talk about them in different ways.

In English, we simply have time. That can be a period, a length of minutes, hours, days, or the general concept of the fourth dimension. Or it can be an occasion, a moment. I saw him three times, we say – just single points on a continuum.

However, many languages split these ideas up. We observe the passage of Zeit (German), καιρός (kairós, Greek), tíð (Icelandic), tid (Norwegian) and czas (Polish). But referring to a single moment, we talk about one Mal, φορά (forá), sinni, gang or raz. For fellow Greek learners and dabblers, this nice recent video sums it up well. (The channel is a fantastic language learning find, incidentally!)

And finally, to home. Whether you are going there, or are already through the front door and on the sofa, English uses the same term. But frequently, other languages use multiple terms to specify direction or position. Icelandic even has three – heim (homewards), heima (at home) and heiman (from home). This should be no surprise, since it also has hér, hingað and héðan for here, and þar, þangað and þaðan for there. That is three directional alternatives where English has dropped all of its hithers and thithers to favour just one. Is English poorer – or just simpler – for it?

The Lesson for Language Learning

Maybe the woolliness of English is not such a bad thing. The traction of English globally could partly be down to these multiple meanings bundled into single terms. Or perhaps broad sweep words like these even arose as a consequence of global use, collapsing categories and precise terminology that would otherwise add a fair bit of learning mileage.

All of this singles the language out a little unfairly, of course, given that English has more than its fair share of precise and verbose jargonese. And, on the flip side of the coin, plenty of single terms in other languages have multiple translations in English. Take the Greek word γήπεδο (yípedo) which can variously mean stadium, pitch, field or court.

But whatever our take on it, it is useful to remind ourselves of the patchwork of mismatches and poorly overlapping translations. Why? Because it is vital to our learning approach to grasp that different languages – even closely related ones – never map onto each other perfectly. As language learners, we never deal with simple, substitutive, one-to-one relationships, despite the apparent authority of dictionaries, phrasebooks and vocabulary guides.

My own takeaway from this? A reminder to rely less on learning via translation and using my native language as a crutch. This is one reason that my 2000 Polish words experiment was not exactly the path the fluency, for example. (Disclaimer: I went into that expecting the outcome, and have done plenty to remedy it since!)

Instead, it is good practice to seek out ways to internalise structures directly in the target language, so you can use them without having to compare them mentally with your own on the fly. Read plenty, and listen to lots. The less often you leap from your target language, the better.

And that brings us right back to thinking. When those interlanguage differences become so insignificant that you no longer notice them, you have really started to think in your target language.

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!

Kigali Conference Centre. Image by By Raddison - https://www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-kigali, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74779948

Unhiding African Languages : Redressing the bias

It is fairly uncontroversial to state that we live in troubled times right now. Try as many of us might to separate languages and politics, it is impossible to keep our neat, studious worlds sealed from the social shifts taking place.

Current discourse around racism in particular encourages us all to interrogate our own philosophies and world views. As open-minded, curious language learners, we might naively assume we are more immune to cultural bias than most. We point to the fact that we explore, consume, and learn about other cultures to become something more worldly and understanding.

It is true that language is a periscope to peer over the wall and see lives lived differently. But we fall foul of one big, structural fault:

An entire continent is hidden from our view.

The near absence of African languages from the online community is a serious blindspot for all of us. For example, take the Niger-Congo languages. Just short of a billion people speak them. They represent the third largest language family in the world. But they are practically invisible in those social media circles that celebrate language learning.

African languages and Western bias

We might try to defend this in several ways. Chiefly, there is “I simply have no interest in them“. That view, however, is difficult to separate from a position of power in a colonial backstory that devalued African languages from the outset. As universities opened in Sub-Sarahan Africa, they were in the Western mould. Teaching and research was – and continues to be, despite activism – overwhelmingly anglophone or francophone. The resulting lack of academic activity around indigenous languages means that African languages are simply not represented within Western education systems to the extent that other foreign languages are. Students – and adult learners – lack the exposure to them needed to spark any initial interest.

The knock-on effect is a lack of accessible learning resources for African languages. Check any bookshop – aside from the odd text like Colloquial Swahili, where would you start if you wanted to learn, say, Luganda or Kinyarwanda?

And this lack of mainstream text books is more than simply an inconvenience. How many of us, for instance, have spotted a potential new language project after chancing upon it during a bookshop browse? Estonian, spoken by just over a million people, might catch your eye as you peruse the shelves in Waterstones. But Igbo, with around 18 million speakers, is most likely out of the race before the start whistle sounds.

We might also try to counter the argument by pointing to the visibility of other, non-Indo-European groups in language study. Japanese, Korean or Chinese, perhaps. But then, these are large, prosperous societies with considerably more prestige capital and global clout than African nations. They do not struggle for global visibility.

So if the issue is structural, it is wrong to talk of any individual fault. It is the system we are embedded in. But we can do something to push back against it.

Bursting the bubble

If institutionalised content is not available, turn to the people. Many African content creators have used YouTube as a means to open up their languages to the world. From the brilliant Made In Igbo channel, to the personal projects of others in Kinyarwanda and Luganda, great, free content is just asking to be liked and shared.

And of course, it is not just about the words. Through exploring and interacting with online content, you catch glimpses of a whole other world. Music, film, fashion – all otherwise absent from our mainstream media. I came across this great Rwandan pop song via a short tutorial video on the channel theoisback:

Just compare the invisibility of this media with the cultural exports from richer, more powerful regions, which find their way into every nook of our lives. It is not a question of quality, but of the power to be seen.

You can break through the book barrier, too. If you prefer to explore more traditional course materials rather than online resources, then the Live Lingua project is an eye-opener. As a collection of materials from decades of language teaching for the US Peace Corps, it offers courses on languages you never see on the High Street. Just like YouTube videos, they also include cultural insights that begin to fill in the gaps of our bubble world view.

What difference will it make?

As single actors in a colossal, ingrained system, we may well wonder what difference we can possibly make. What good will it do to undo the institutional invisibility of African languages in our individual lives?

But our greatest tool is our community – our networks to discuss, share, inspire. Dabblers, try some Swahili (Duolingo has a good basic introduction) and let others know about it. Find authentic content you enjoy and share it on social media. Together, let us raise the visibility profile – and prestige – of African languages as much as possible.

When we do journey outside our bubble, it enriches us. We realise that there are a million and one ways to ‘do’ language, and we barely even scratch the surface with the narrow selection on our path. But, ultimately, we learn the lesson of co-humanity. We produce language using the same linguistic building blocks, the same brains, the same bodies. As human beings, there is so much more that unites us than divides us.

Certainly, Africa is not the only hidden, underrepresented part of the linguistic globe. We could have the very same argument about South American indigenous languages, aboriginal Australian languages and so on. But at this juncture in history, redressing this particular imbalance seems critical, pertinent, urgent.

In the face of our current societal challenges, it might seem such a tiny thing to do. But it is something.