Icelandic horses. Image from freeimages.com.

Learning Icelandic and Norwegian Together : Close Buddies and False Friends

There are advantages and disadvantages to learning very closely related languages together. And despite the benefits generally outweighing the snags, false friends are probably the most irksome spot of that downside. Icelandic and Norwegian are one such pairing that seems really popular in polyglot circles lately.

Because of the conservatism of Icelandic, tackling the two often feels like studying contemporary and ‘historical’ Norse side by side (although we need to be careful not to fall into that trap – Icelandic is a modern language that has been developing from Old Norse as long as Norwegian has).

That closeness gives us plenty of hooks to transfer knowledge. For example, Iceland þ (th) will show up as Norwegian t where the latter has inherited the same word:

🇮🇸 þreyttur – 🇳🇴 trøtt (tired)

But elsewhere, even when there is a really transparent cognate pair, meaning and use have drifted in the sands of time.

Traps to Trip You Up

One subtle cognate slip-up occurs with semsom, the relativiser in clauses such as the book that I read. Icelandic and Norwegian agree as far as that is concerned:

🇮🇸 bókin sem ég las – 🇳🇴 boka som jeg leste

But that’s all they can agree on. Firstly, sem is not optional in Icelandic, whereas Norwegian can do as English does and simply say boka jeg leste.

What’s more, they also fall out when it comes to the other, more prepositional use, as in like a cat:

🇮🇸 eins og köttur – 🇳🇴 som en katt

That’s, like, a bit tricky.

Taking a Liking

Likewise, líkur / lik (alike) don’t always map onto each other like for like. While ‘they are alike‘ can be:

🇮🇸 þeir eru líkar – 🇳🇴 de er like

…in Icelandic, you’re more often than not going to come up against that eins again to mean ‘alike’:

🇮🇸 þeir eru eins

As eins clearly derives from the number one, it’s not hard to connect this to phrases like one and the same in English, or en og samme in Norwegian. Still, Icelandic uses eins pretty much everywhere that Norwegian uses like, so it’s another distinction to mark on the map.

Add to the fact that Icelandic uses cognate líka for also (også in Norwegian), and it has even more potential to be a confuser.

Do You Really Like It?

And like it or not, we’re not finished with like yet. It actually turns out that it really likes to mess with us. The Old Norse verb líka has ended up in both languages (just as English ended up with like from a more distant common ancestor). However, in Icelandic, líka is used in purely impersonal expressions:

🇮🇸 mér líkar það (lit. to me likes/pleases it)

…whereas in Norwegian, it works just the way like does in English, with the liker as the subject, and a direct object as the liked thing:

🇳🇴 jeg liker det (I like it)

Not only that: while expressions with líka in Icelandic do translate as like, they’re not the most colloquial way to express liking any more, and may come across as rather archaic. These days, you’re better off with a phrase using skemmtilegur (amusing, entertaining) like:

🇮🇸 mér finnst það skemmtilegt (to me finds-itself it amusing)

Admittedly, these quirks can seem less than amusing as a beginner learner, to be sure.

Crazy House

Funnily enough, it’s the realm of house and home where a little cluster of words diverges quite radically in meaning. Perhaps it’s not surprising for words relating to everyday living arrangements; as customs and practices change, old terms get repurposed and attached to ever more differing concepts. But stand by: this set seems like it went through a tumble dryer.

Norwegian rom will be familiar to English speakers as the cognate room. It meant largely the same in Old Norse – any room or internal space. But in Icelandic, it can now have the meaning bed. There’s quite an interesting theory for how that shift happened here.

Meanwhile, Norwegian seng, which means bed, is cognate with Icelandic sæng – which means duvet. And Norwegian dyne, which is duvet, materialises as Icelandic dýna – which means mattress. Utter bedroom confusion (as if deciding which side to sleep on wasn’t hard enough already).

Honorable Mentions

There are, predictably, plenty of these pitfalls between the languages – far too many for a short article. But amongst the hotchpotch of favourite falseish friends between Icelandic and Norwegian are two more favourites of mine.

Firstly, the word lag can mean layer in both languages. In Icelandic, however, it can also mean song. It’s notably a word in the title of one of Iceland’s most successful Eurovision entries, the boppy Eitt lag enn (one more song) of 1990. In Norwegian, on the other hand, it can mean teamOne more team just doesn’t sound as fun, does it?

Along similar lines, we have grein (spelt gren in some varieties of Norwegian), which means branch to both Icelanders and Norwegians. But in Icelandic, the very same word is used for an article in a newspaper. A case of a word branching out, perhaps?

Variety Show

It’s all fun and games, of course, and one of the reasons it can be so fascinating to learn languages within the same grein of a family tree. For one thing, you end up collecting juicy etymological trivia in droves (the kind of stuff you can spin out for an upbeat language blog, for instance).

But a final point for fellow dual learners concerns the variety of Norwegian you learn. If, instead of vanilla Bokmål, you study Nynorsk, or any of the traditional dialects of Norway under that umbrella, you might well come across a few more cognates and similarities to Icelandic. Bokmål, as the heir to Riksmål and the imported Dano-Norwegian of centuries past, has levelled out some of the more Norsey features of traditional norsk. Dialects often preserve these beautifully. If you’re up for exploring this further, then a good place to start is NRK’s language programme Språksnakk, which regularly answers questions on local vocab features that bear more than a passing resemblance to islenska.

Do you have similar experiences with this or any other pair of languages? Let us know your favourite drifting cognates in the comments!

Polylogger makes tracking your study hours easy. And it can throw up some revelations! Image from freeimages.com

Polylogger Revelations

I finally boarded the Polylogger train and joined the enthusiastic activity tracking community a couple of weeks ago. And to tell the truth, it’s been a bit of a revelation.

Chances are you might well have beaten me to the best seats already. Polylogger already has a well-established, sizeable, active and very sociable fanbase on social media. In fact, it was on Twitter that I first spotted fellow language aficionados singing its praises, so it seemed timely to hop on board already. Better late than never!

Getting started was a cinch. It’s quick and easy to sign up, and the study diary tools are a piece of cake to use. When you get into the swing of things, logging – and watching those graphs grow – is real language geek fun. I love being motivated by what other people are working on, and have already spotted a couple of new resources I didn’t know about through community entries.

But to make the most of the tool, it was what I should be logging that I needed to sort out first and foremost.

That is, what counts as a study session? Just those substantial chunks of time, like hour-long iTalki sessions? Or every little thing, including the odd couple of minutes minutes here and there on casual language apps, or a brief podcast listen during breakfast?

The great #langtwt community, once again, had the answers. It should definitely include the latter. After all, those little bits and pieces all add up. So, off I went, logging my language learning life.

But what secrets did Polylogger have to reveal?

Polylogger : exposing your true habits

By far, its most scandalous exposé for me is the mismatch between what I think I focus on, and what I actually do spend most of my time on. Let’s call it delusion-busting, since I certainly had a very different idea about what I was getting up to. In my mind, I split my main language learning time equally between Greek and Polish. They’re my current active learning projects right now, and I’ve been having at least one iTalki lesson in both every week, as well as fitting in independent activities. I’d actually set Polish as my default language, assuming it was the one I was prioritising most, even attending extra group classes with my tutor.

The thing is, the Polylogger stats do not lie. Shockingly, I’ve actually been spending hours more on Greek. Pretty much twice as many, in fact. How could I not know that?

After analysing the diary stats, the reason jumped out (and was pretty easy to guess in any case). It’s back to that logging every little thing strategy. The numbers show that I naturally fall to Greek when I do my little daily pass-the-time activities like Anki, Duolingo and Glossika. In the long run, that was a massive added value for Greek, and none for Polish. Polish was certainly no poor cousin, and I was working in a couple of major sessions a week – just not the cascade of extras that Greek enjoyed.

No wonder I’ve been finding Greek easier and easier while my Polish level continues to edge along so gradually. Thanks to Polylogger, I can start to rethink my strategy and redress that bias.

Polylogger has been a revelation in itself, providing extra focus and deeper insights into my learning. Whether you’re new to the tool too, or a seasoned user, feel free to add newbie @richwestsoley to your circle!

New book, new language - a pile of Assimil "ohne Mühe" editions.

New Book, New Language

What comes first? The language – or the language book?

It’s a real chicken-and-egg question if you love language book shopping. Some editions just look so irresistibly shiny, that you long to have them on your shelf – regardless of whether the language fits your polyglot plan or not.

So it is with the Assimil editions and me at the moment. The uniform white and blue cover format sparks off the collector in me, and I end up wanting them all. That’s even though I have them in most of my active languages already. It was the same old story with the Teach Yourself Tutor books. I liked those so much that I bagged myself a couple in languages I don’t even study (yet). Incorrigible!

So, it was a predictable but special treat to buy myself an Assimil in a new language recently. Welcome to the shelf, Croatian!

Assimil's Kroatisch ohne Mühe

New Kid on the Desk : Assimil’s Kroatisch ohne Mühe

Language book whys and wherefores

First off, why Assimil, besides the satisfaction of building up that delft-like blue-and-white book collection?

Well, I’m in good company. Language learning legend Luca Lampariello has given Assimil textbooks the thumbs up, for a start. For all sorts of approaches, including his bidirectional translation technique, Assimil courses contain ideal, self-contained, high-frequency vocab dialogues to work with. Several languages are only available in German or French as the base language, fulfilling my love of non-native language course guides. And more practically speaking, they’re also really compact to carry around in your bag or rucksack.

Secondly, another language? Really?

Before you chide me for taking on too much, I should explain that I’m not about to dive headfirst into Croatian as a full-on language project. Instead, it’s purely practical. I’m learning for a trip, albeit a trip that was meant to take place this September, and has now been postponed to 2022 (thanks, Covid). I’m off to the Croatian coast with friends, and it’s a huge part of my personal ethos to learn at least a bit of the language everywhere I go. My goal? Maybe five or ten minutes a day until the trip.

A Eurovision head start

I’m not starting ab initio, of course. A lifetime of fawning over Eurovisions of old makes sure of that. Yes, my Croatian is already a 50-ish word pot pourri of song titles and lyrics from the early 60s onwards. Want me to talk about ljubav? I’m your man. Want to dance, Croatian-style? Ja sam za ples, too! Want to learn yet another language with me? Hajde da ludujemo! (You just knew I’d work Eurovision into this somehow, eh?)

Of course, I’ve said all this “it’s nothing serious” before, many, many times over. Maybe what I intend as a happy friendship could well blossom into ljubav in the end. Well, my heart and mind are open. Croatian, I am ready!

Language and music - the Eurovision 2021 stage. Photo by EBU / STIJN SMULDERS.

Language and Music : A Double Whammy Treat This Week

It’s an exciting week ahead for lovers of language and music. Firstly…

It’s Eurovision Week!

As you’ll know, my polyglot passions and love for the content are tightly intertwined, so Eurovision is a very special treat once a year. Even more so this year, since the 2020 event was cancelled due to the worsening Covid-19 situation. There will be a lot to celebrate in Rotterdam on Saturday the 22nd.

Since the free language rule was reintroduced in 1999, however, the non-English entries have dwindled. Saying that, there are still rich pickings for those eager for songs in other tongues. Italy and France are currently the top favourites to win – and both sung in the countries’ native languages. Malta, while mainly sung in English, is a vehicle for a very handy colloquial French phrase, “je me casse” (I’m outta here). And, admirably, Denmark has elected to sing in Danish this year, and what a catchy little synth bop it is, too. It has been quite a while since we last heard Danish sung at the contest!

I still keep my hand in writing about the contest, and you can follow my regular bookies’ roundup articles at esctoday.com. Have to keep on top of those odds!

The Polyglot Gathering (Online)

Appropriately, Eurovision week coincides with another jamboree of coming together in language and culture: the Polyglot Gathering. It’ll be my first, although I got great vibes from my inaugural Polyglot Conference in Slovenia too, and expect the level of linguistic revelry and ribaldry to be at least as high.

Due to the ongoing Coronavirus crisis, it will be quite a different gathering this year. Originally slated to take place in Teresin, Poland, it would have been the perfect opportunity to practise my Polish. Fortunately, the organisers have planned in a couple of online practice rooms for Polish learners, so I’ll still get my polski fix (as well as all the rest!).

It’s still not too late to register at the official site if it takes your fancy. I hope to see many of you there!

In Other Language News…

Oh – and bookshops are open to walk around and browse again where I am. It has been too long, friends. Absolute heaven. I hope you’ve experienced a bit of a return to the ‘good old days’ where you are, too. Long may things continue to improve!

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!