Fluffy dice in a car. Picture from freeimages.com.

Rolling with It as a Language Learner in a Random World

Ever noticed how life throws opportunities at you as a language learner – just not always the ones you had imagined?

So it transpired again at this year’s Language Show Live. The long-running show is an annual outing for the Linguascope crew, and a chance to catch up with fellow language enthusiasts and educators from around the world.

One of my highlights is chatting to delegates in foreign languages – especially when they don’t expect it. It’s worth it for the surprised smiles alone.

Richard West-Soley at Language Show Live 2019

A vision in yellow! Manning the Linguascope stand at Language Show Live 2019

Of course, at these events we always wish for opportunities to speak our strongest languages, or those we are actively working on at the moment. Wouldn’t it be nice if I got the chance to speak a bit of Norwegian or Icelandic?, I thought. Or exchange a few words in Polish?

But, of course, life rarely seems to oblige in the expected fashion.

Rolling the language dice

The first roll of the language dice turned up a lovely group teachers from Spain. Quite literally, since they wanted to know all about Linguascope’s funky dados hablantes (Talking Dice). They were enthusiastic and positively brimming with product questions, but keen to chat about them in Spanish.

Now, I have a long history with Spanish, as it was one of my degree languages along with German. But I must admit, I’ve woefully neglected it in recent years. I’d feel nervous about speaking it in a professional setting, given advance warning. But here, I was on the spot, with no time to get anxious. Lovely, friendly people in need of information, and me, eager to please.

And you know what? My castellano all rose back to the surface, relatively intact and fully functional. And after years of not doing much with it at all, it was actually fun to be speaking the language again.

There is a reason for everything, of course. Life works in mysterious ways. And so it happened that I had to use my Spanish several times over my show days. Reassurance that, once learnt, a language never really leaves you. And perhaps life’s way of saying oi – don’t forget about your Spanish? You never know. I might even start taking better care of it again!

Pot pourri

Spanish was far from my only surprise at this year’s event. A very multilingual delegate had me guessing which was her native language. We started in Spanish, then tried German, and then… Dutch!

Confession: I don’t speak Dutch. I could never claim Dutch it as one of my languages. But, armed with perhaps fifty words (mainly from Eurovision songs) and making the rest up from German (handy to know how the sounds in close languages relate to one another), I managed to say a couple of things and raise a smile.

Admittedly, my ‘Dutch’ wasn’t operating at any functional level – unless you count the smiles and social lubricant as a function, of course. And maybe that is the whole point – language is a social tool, however little of it we possess.

Plot twist

And, surprise twist ending alert: I did get my chance to speak Norwegian. It was just a quick hello to cam for a show promo video, so it wasn’t exactly a chat. But there’s the proof that the Universe was listening to me all along. It was simply choosing to lead me on its very own path.

Polyglot life prepares us well for the randomness of social life. Any time, any place, any language, seize the opportunity to connect. Life is too serendipitous to expect it to conform to our own whims. Just work with it!

Bingo could be good for your speaking, too! Image by Michiel Meulemans on FreeImages.com

Speaking Bingo Sheets for Snappy Active Vocab Recall

When it comes to making vocabulary stick in memory, there are few more effective methods than actively working new material in your speaking practice.

Regularly engaging with new words and phrases in a foreign language is constructive recycling. They gain a salience in the brain beyond words on a page, helping to cement solid neural pathways. Practical use is a sure-fire way to move new material from passive to active knowledge, which is one reason that the Active Recall memory method works so well.

But sometimes, it is not enough to simply hope they come up in conversation. We need a systematic approach to target new vocab.

Polyglot pals, I present to you: speaking bingo sheets!

Speaking bingo sheets

In essence, speaking bingo sheets are simply preparation notes for conversation lessons – with a twist. Instead of a static list of items, they are a dynamic grid of entries that you tick off as you use them. And, like real bingo, you can add in an element of reward (and punishment, if you like!).

To get started, take a 3×3 grid. In each box, add a word or phrase from your recent language learning work. A three-square grid for nine items in total is ample, as more can get unwieldy. My own use of them has evolved from longer checklists to these snappier grilles, and the tighter focus feels much more amenable.

Ideally, all the items should be in a related topic (as it’s easier to fit them into a single conversation then!). As you use them while speaking with your tutor, you tick them off. Simple!

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

Speaking Bingo Sheets needn’t be on paper – here’s one of mine in Icelandic on Notability for iPad.

If you need a bit of extra motivation, you can add a checklist of achievements and rewards below the grid. Your prizes can be as simple or elaborate as you want. A single line? A choccie bar with your coffee. A full house? Allow yourself to buy  that language learning book you’ve been eyeing up for months. You can add punishments too, but just enough to engender a bit of self-discipline. Be kind to yourself – the last thing you need is extra stress in something that should be a joy!

Your teacher can be in on the plan, if you like. But equally, bingo can be for your eyes only. And they’ll be left wondering just why you are so focused in your speaking today!

No lessons? No problem!

I use speaking bingo as part of my regular one-to-one conversation lessons with iTalki tutors. However, they lend themselves to all sorts of other learning situations, too.

If you are practising in situ on holiday, for example, you can set yourself a daily ‘speak sheet’ – nine things that you must try to say to native speakers. They can be as prosaic (“can I have a serviette, please?”) or as whacky (“do you know where I can buy a llama?”) as you like (or are brave enough to say). Unleashing your speaking game in the wild can not only be a bit of silly fun, but also great for building social confidence.

Even if you are nowhere special, with no native speakers within harassing distance, all is not lost. We learn a lot by teaching – or simply explaining – to others. In this case, simply make it your goal to explain each one of those grid items (meaning, pronunciation, etymology etc.) to nine different friends and family members.

However you do it, there is always a way to recycle, recycle, recycle, and move those words from passive to active memory.

Adapting for the classroom

Finally, there are also numerous variations of this you could try with a class of students. At an introductory level, each student could prepare a grid of questions like “what’s your name?“, “how old are you?” and so on. Then, with five minutes to mingle, their objective would be to ask – and record the answer – of every item on their grid. Prizes for a full house!

Structure and flexibility

Speaking bingo sheets are a great framework for using vocabulary and making it stick. They are flexible, in that you can create them from whatever material you choose. But they are also structured, lending some scaffolding to the otherwise very free realm of conversation.

Experiment, adapt and give them a go. And let us know how you get on in the comments!

 

How many languages should we learn at once? How many pieces of the jigsaw do you need? Image by Gary Fleischer on freeimages.com.

How Many Languages Should You Learn At Once? [Spoiler: it’s up to you!]

Every so often there is a ripple in the polyglot ocean, and that old, bebarnacled behemoth “how many languages should you learn at once?” rises to the surface again. A couple of social media posts on that perennial debate caught my eye recently, with passionate punters in both camps.

The conundrum is this: do we concentrate on a single language project at a time, maximising our efforts to progress more quickly and efficiently? Or do we indulge our love of languages, learning several at a time, aiming for the same goals but over a longer period of time?

Spoiler: there is no single, right answer to that question, however much the pundits claim!

Guilt-busting

The accepted wisdom currently seems to have swung in favour of “resist the temptation” when it comes to multiple languages. Narrow focus is the key to success. Now, I must admit to a pang of guilt every time I hear this nugget. As much as many, many of my polyglot friends, I am guilty of full-on Aladdin’s Cave mode. I am a veritable magpie with shiny new languages. If I really want to reach fluency quickly, so the recommendation goes, then I should probably drop a few for now.

Although concrete advice like this errs on the prescriptive side, it does mean well. And as a guideline for the goal-oriented learner, it is sound, too. If your language journey has a very well-defined, practical purpose, such as preparing to live in another country, or pass an exam, it is certainly the safe path to travel.

But are utility and economy of time really the alpha and omega of language learning for pleasure?

The explorer approach

The danger of prescriptive advice is that it selects a single path out of many – black or white, right or wrong. It is exclusive. Specifically, it sets up the end result as the only meaningful objective.

The reality of language learning is much more nuanced. The point for many of us is in the process, as well as the result.

Does a multilanguage process slow down progress compared to a one-at-a-time approach? In terms of pure mileage covered, it stands to reason, yes. But in other ways, not so much. It depends on what you are measuring the progress of. Chiefly, learning multiple tongues simultaneously takes some beating as a big picture approach to developing a deep understanding of language.

I like to view all my language projects as part of this much larger whole. What I learn in one helps carry the others along, too. Most obviously, this yields dividends when studying quite closely related languages, such as German, Icelandic and Norwegian. In this case, it is less about how many languages you learn, and more about which ones. Learning within this group helps to develop a keen instinct for the shared history, shape and feel of Germanic languages.

But even zooming out to more distant leaves on the tree, we can deepen our understanding of language at another level of abstraction. You develop a feel for what language, in a much more general sense, is trying to do, how humans perform communication. In particular, you start to see recurring patterns in how information is coded across very disparate groups.

What is a subject, and how is it given precedence in the sentence? How does language encode time and space, and what commonalities are there between far-flung groups? How are individuals and collectives represented in different ways by different languages?

All these question relate to how human beings package up and present information to carry out specific social functions. Studying a plethora, rather than just one at a time, opens the eyes of learners to the human jungle in glorious technicolour.


Incidentally, the ‘big picture’ argument for polyglot learning has a lot in common with the ideal of the polymath ‘all-rounder’.

Incremental and cumulative

Perhaps, too, we are asking the wrong question when making a choice between quick and slow learning. The most generally applicable piece of advice is simply this: make your learning incremental and cumulative, whatever the speed. Just keep building. And fast is not always fantastic.

This more ambling, strolling path to fluency reminds me of Dawkin’s explanation for the slow evolutionary development of eyes. As he explains, the eye did not simply flash into existence, fully formed. Instead, it evolved over aeons, from an initial small cluster of photosensitive cells on an early life-form, to the complex organ we see in so many incarnations today. At each stage, what was to become the eye was still useful and functional, even though it lacked the finesse of its current form.

Slow language learning is the same. Even if it takes longer to reach high-functioning fluency, the interim skills are nonetheless useful at every step. Just like evolution, language progress is incremental and cumulative, at whatever speed you take it.

A joy, not a chore

We should also remember what brings us to languages in the first place: the sheer joy of it. Too much rigidity can take the edge off any pleasure and turn it into a chore, and this is no exception. Of course, regularity and habit are crucial to ensuring progress. But we should be careful not to deny the place of flexibility in our passion, too.

For instance, I completed my first 30 Day Language Challenge in October. I tackled that one in Polish, and am now into November’s event using Icelandic as my challenge language. The daily speaking topics give me some structure and focus, but I maintain the freedom to use a different language in each challenge.

That’s a great compromise for me and fellow shiny-object fiends. We all have times when we are drawn more to one language than another, and that is absolutely fine. Basing our routines around short, sharp, fixed-term projects like the 30-Day Challenge gives us the best of both worlds: variety and structure.

What’s more, there is nothing to stop you switching modes with the ebb and flow of your own life. Sometimes an exam or a foreign trip will require a change in gear. Stay flexible; what is right for you now may not be in a month’s time.

How many languages? You decide.

I personally strive not to view my learning as a race against time. Nor as a sprint, or even a jog. I prefer it to be a glide, giving me the leisure to take in as much of the view as possible.

But this is not a personal manifesto. What works for me may well not work for you. But it is a friendly nudge to listen to what you want, rather than worry about the many shoulds and shouldn’ts whooshing past us on social media.

Joy should never be prescriptive. Although the booming edict ‘Learn But One Language At A Time’ is well-meant advice, the peer pressure it carries, coming from the mouths of experts, is powerful. One size never fits all. We are a rainbow of different circumstances. Consider at your leisure and select the answer that suits you.

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

Disembodied Voices : Using TTS as a Native Speaker Boost

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

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

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

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

TTS Toolkit

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

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

Google Translate offers TTS features.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Incorporating TTS MP3s

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

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

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

Anki's media folder

Anki’s media folder

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

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

[sound:filename.mp3]

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

Anki card with embedded sound

An Anki card with embedded sound

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

A human touch

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

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

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

You can still be accountable even as a lone ranger. Photo by Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com.

Staying Accountable as a Lone Language Learner

How do you stay accountable in your solo language learning?

I know I sometimes find it difficult as an individual learner. It’s an important consideration for anyone studying on their own. But there’s a clue: one answer is to aim for less of the on your own and instead, build elements of community into the approach to study. And that’s something that was thrown into sharp relief for me recently, as I took part in the 30-Day Speaking Challenge for the very first time.

Accountable together

The challenge has been around for a while now, but I’d managed to find one reason after another to put it off. I finally bit the bullet this month, and discovered a cheery, well-oiled machine well into its paces as a regular event. Run by online teacher and fellow polyglot Jonathan Huggins, the challenge brings together daily speaking tasks with straightforward, big-hearted peer support through shared Google Docs. Simple, but motivating. I’m not sure what kept me away for so long!

The particularly wonderful thing about the challenge is the way every participant helps keep everybody else on track. You not only record, but you listen to the recordings of others learning your native language, and chip in your native knowledge where you can. It creates a huge positive vibe of mutual support, and it seems like the completion rate for daily recordings is very high. That’s undoubtedly almost entirely due to the warm buzz from peer feedback and encouragement.

Learners maintain their daily recordings in order to remain an active part of this mutual motivation club.

I’m currently two thirds of the way through October’s challenge, which I’m tackling in Polish. Some of the daily topics can be tough, but I keep coming back for more every day. It has me convinced – so much so that I’ve already signed up to do the November challenge in Icelandic!

So why has the challenge been so effective for me and others?

Social checkboxes

With language learning, I’ve long been a fan of regularity and routine. Creating a regime to follow gives scaffolding to your overarching goals, and brilliant productivity tools like Evernote help manage these daily tactics precisely with checklists and plans.

Adding a social layer to this self-management brings something a bit special to these regimes. In essence, your checklists receive a potent, people-powered turbo-boost. Suddenly, it’s not just you. It’s a whole bunch of other people you want to run with and not let down.

Staying accountable means making sure that there is someone – besides you – to give reason to your checkboxes.

Keeping it fresh

It goes beyond that a simple motivational boost, too. Letting other human beings into your learning opens you up to a whole other realm of ideas and techniques. This aspect of socialised learning ticks a crucial box: part of staying accountable to yourself as a learner includes keeping up-to-date with new or different resources.

For instance, during this current challenge I found out about the very useful SpeakPipe site. SpeakPipe offers a web-based voice recording app, which saves recordings for a month and provides a URL for you to share them with others. It’s instant, works on pretty much any device, and takes the fuss out of making a quick recording.

But what is even handier is the function to download those files to keep offline forever. Using it on the challenge has resulted in a little bank of MP3 files I can use as both a record of my progress in Polish, and as revision materials for the topics I speak about.

Staying accountable by downloading your daily recordings on Speakpipe.

Speakpipe allows you to download your recordings as MP3s to keep forever.

There is also a sneaky side-benefit to these short daily recordings. They play perfectly into the language islands technique beloved of famed linguistic impresario Luca Lampariello. In this approach, islands are rehearsed snippets of target language that you have available for instant insertion into conversation. It’s a quick fluency tip that works well, and by the end of October, I’ll have ended up with thirty little Polish islands of my own!

Accountability everywhere

I’ve discussed staying accountable in the context of the 30-Day Speaking Challenge here. But social accountability is on tap in plenty of other places besides this excellent cheerleader for peer encouragement. You can satiate your need for positive feedback by keeping up regular iTalki lessons, for example, or attending a language café.

Additionally, there are myriad other community-based mini-challenges that run regularly and are worth checking out. Some are language-based, like LanguageJam, whereas others are not specific to language learners, but can be adapted to foreign language practice, like NaNoWriMo.

And of course, there is no warmer home for polyglots than the thriving polyglot Twitter community. Share, encourage others and thrive – even as a lone ranger!

Where there are fellow learners, there are friends to keep you on track. Seek them out.

A bunch of Norwegian banknotes - what opportunity can you imagine springing from these? Image from freeimages.com

Polyglot Superpowers : Turning Calamity into Opportunity

Foreign languages are superpowers. A bold claim? Well, just think about it: they allow you to perform impressive feats that others cannot. Polyglot people can leverage their skills to open doors, get things done, create opportunities and build bridges, amongst many other things.

Still not convinced by the superpower label? Think of it this way. Just like superpowers, those without foreign language skills actually wish for it as a skill. “Learning Spanish”, for example, featured recently in a top ten ‘most desired’ skill list according to Skillup.

Powerful, elusive and desired: language skills are definitely super.

So what feats can we achieve with foreign languages? Mulling this over brought to mind a personal holiday headache where languages saved the day (and a fair bit of cash)…

Funny money

Being a lover of norsk, I try to travel to Norway as often as possible to practise. As a result, I tend to have a few Norwegian coins and notes lying around the house. No great fortunes, of course – I should be so lucky! Usually, it’s just a few NOK here and a couple of NOK there. But just before I left on this particular trip, I made a lucky find: three crisp, forgotten 200 NOK notes in a drawer. Nearly £60 I’d forgotten about. What a stroke of luck!

That is, until I got to Norway and tried use one to pay for my calzone in Deli de Luca. (Please don’t judge me – it’s one of the cheapest ways to eat as a visitor to Norway on a non-Norwegian wage!) Expecting a smooth, easy transaction – level A1 stuff at best – I was met with a stern look and a “det gjelder ikke lenger” (that’s no longer valid). Yes, unbeknownst to me, Norges Bank had withdrawn billions of NOK’s worth of money since I exchanged those forgotten notes at the Post Office. Oops.

Treasure hunt

Miffed at the thought of wasted money, the usual reservedness fell away. I had to find out what was going on.

Now, when you really want to know something, it’s astonishing how quickly and easily the words flow. And, through a bit of agitated questioning, I learnt from my Deli de Luca operative that all was not lost. There was still just one single bank in Oslo where I could exchange the old notes for new.

When you really want to know something, it’s astonishing how quickly and easily the words flow.

The treasure hunt was on, and it was an Odyssey of words. Using my best Bokmål on the staff at my hotel, I first figured out how to get to the bank. Being on the opposite side of town (typical!), I had to crack out my very best phrasebook language in order to navigate across the breadth of the city. Then, at the austere-looking bank offices, I explained my way past the security guard, and then on to the elderly teller, bemused by the story of the money I almost left past its sell-by date.

Finally – mission accomplished! I walked away with three brand new, reissued 200 kroner notes. Only as the determination gave way to relief did I realise how much Norwegian I’d spoken along the adventure.

And to think that I’d started this journey feeling nervous about asking for a calzone!

Polyglot power-up opportunities

Hey presto. A bit of language magic turned a handful of worthless paper into enough cash for a (rather small) Norwegian meal. Now, could I have navigated this calamity using English? Most likely, since there is wide knowledge of English in Norway.

But would I have learnt anything? Not a fraction. As it was, I felt the polyglot superpower grow just a little bit stronger for it. And I am certain that the whole process was smoother for the smiles and nods at a foreign visitor making the effort to speak the language. It can really bring out the best in people, disarming them and eliciting warmth and kindness. Speak, gesture, explain, but above all, communicate to get the help you need.

You can apply your foreign language magic to most holiday headache situations, and watch the shoots grow. And, as I found, there is little greater motivation to speak than the need to sort out personal issues. (Money, food and drink are all very effective, in my experience!)

In the path of danger?

Obviously nobody wants to go out actively seeking disaster. But there are ways to put yourself in the path of danger, so to speak, in safe and controlled ways.

Set up situations where you need to speak the language to get along

For one thing, you can actively set up situations where you need to speak the language to get along. Try booking self-catering accommodation, for example.  The basic need for food will force you out to practise those supermarket conversations. Or even better: make a point of going to smaller, local grocery shops for your ingredients. That’s a polyglot treasure hunt with a tasty reward at the end of it!

If you are something of a shy polyglot like me, then these motivational scenarios are excellent for bringing you out of your shell.

The magic of the everyday

That polyglot problem-solving power is a tool on your belt to handle any situation you might find yourself in on your travels. Of course, on the face of it, you might say that there is no magic here. This is just plain old resourcefulness, right?

Well, it cannot hurt to lend a little magical realism to an appraisal of your skills. Superpowers, like all skills and abilities, are means to an end, ways to get things done. Keep busting calamities in your billowing cape. And think of your language skills as superpowers with a bit of open sesame! magic. It’s a great way to create a sense of pride in them.

Is the starting point for functional fluency a list of the right core words? Photo by acscom from freeImages.com

300 Words for Functional Fluency : Miss Swanson’s Elucidating Experiment

Decrepit, dusty old language learning books from bygone days are a guilty pleasure of mine. And sometimes, the most obscure, long-forgotten tomes throw up some shining treasures. Leafing through one such volume this week week, I stumbled across a fascinating gem of a tip that promises a helpful shortcut to functional fluency in a language.

The book in question – George McLennan’s “Scots Gaelic – A Brief Introduction – is not one of the oldest I’ve taken a ramble through, seeing its first impression in 1987. But it contains a curious factoid that served as the basis for a whole chapter on essential vocabulary. Let’s join Mr McLennan, and dive into the strange and curious world of the mysterious Miss Elaine Swanson.

Elaine Swanson and the 300 words

Swanson, explains McLennan, was “director of the New York Language Institute” around the 1930s. Now, her existence may well be apocryphal, as I am yet to find any modern reference to her – or the New York Language Institute – online or otherwise. But this mythical Miss Swanson is noted for one particular and exciting theory. She posited that a spoken vocabulary of just 300 words will suffice to get by in a language.

Being a thoroughly practical kind of person, and seeking empirical proof, she took it upon herself to attempt this feat in English for the duration of a whole three months. Apart from undoubtedly bemusing and irritating friends, relatives and colleagues, this exercise allowed her to compile a list of those core 300 words that represent a level of functional fluency.

Thanks to McLennan’s unearthing of her story, we too can benefit from the fruits of that hard work.

Functional fluency list

Here, arranged by the parts of speech. Clearly, a huge nod goes in George McLennan’s direction for printing this list with Gaelic translations in his book. Otherwise, Miss Swanson’s experiment might have been lost forever.

The final list actually comes in at a little under 300 words. Bear in mind that not every language will match up with these English terms exactly, so it will need a little adapting for other languages. McLennan notes that Gaelic, for example, has no single word for no – instead, this is paraphrased.

And one more note before we begin: some categories and inclusions might seem a little eccentric or unusual. Remember that this list was made in and for a very certain place and a very certain time. It manages to be fairly general, but will need some personalisation!

Miss Elaine Swanson’s Core Vocabulary

Prepositions

at, after, for, from, in, on, to, with

Conjunctions

and, or, if, but, so, that

Pronouns

I, he/she, you

Possessives

my, your, their

Interjections

hello, goodbye, oh!

Articles

the

Nature

fire, light, sun

Business

I assume that Mr McLennan has changed the currency words here for a British audience.

bank, pound, penny, money, office, manager, show, size, shop, trouble, way

Travel

boat, car, country, hotel, left, place, right, station, street, ticket, town, train

Objects

bag, book, letter, telephone, thing, story, word, picture, nothing

Days of the Week

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Modifiers

The original list uses “modifiers” as a kind of catch-all for anything descriptive, making this a mixed bag!

again, all, any, big, clean, cold, correct, down, easy, every, expensive, good, happy, here, how?, little, long, many, more, married, much, new, nice, no, not, now, old, one, other, piece, ready, same, slow, some, sorry, that, there, this, too, also, up, warm, very, well, what?, when?, where?, who?, why?

Food

Miss Swanson could almost be the original author of Duolingo’s “Food” topics…

bread, butter, sweets, coffee, egg, fruit, meat, milk, salt, sugar, vegetables, water

Time

day, evening, hour, minute, month, morning, night, time, today, tonight, tomorrow, week, yesterday

House

bath, floor, house, key, room, table

People

boy, brother, doctor, father, friend, girl, man, men, Miss, mother, Mr, Mrs, name, policeman, sister, woman, women

Clothes

cloth, clothes, coat, dress, hat, shoes, stockings, trousers

Colours

black, blue, green, red, white

Were there no yellow things in Miss Swanson’s world?

Verbs (and auxiliaries)

will, won’t, ask, be (am, are, is, was, were), can/can’t/could, come/came, do/does/don’t/did, eat/ate, excuse, gain, get/got, give, go/went, have/has/had, help, know/knew, learn, like, make/made, must, please, put, read, say/said, see/saw, sent, sit/sat, sleep/slept, smoke, start, stop, take/took, thank, think/thought, understand/understood, use, want, work, write/wrote

A critical eye

Evaluating the list for its practicality, the omissions are often more noteworthy than the generally helpful inclusions. Indeed, I end up with more questions than answers. Why no we or they in the pronoun section, for example? One English word frequency list places we above both he and she, so this might seem like something that needs tweaking. And where is the handy it, which sits firmly in the top ten most common English words in the same frequency table?

If frequency word lists were available (presumably Miss Swanson would have had access to these as director of a linguistic institute), why did she not use these to compile a core vocabulary? That said, this was a personal experiment, and – it is fair to say – probably not exactingly scientific. The aim of fluency was on the terms of the author’s everyday, not a one-size-fits-all average person.

Elsewhere, some of the collapsed categories seem tailored quite specifically to English. We can only assume that the inclusion of possessive their is the gender-neutral one to cover he/she more economically with a single word.

Window on a world

A particularly fascinating characteristic of the list is the choice of present/past verb pairs. Only certain past tenses are included (knew, slept etc.), while others verbs are given only in the present / infinitive form. Presumably the choice relates to the kind of polite, daily conversations the protagonist was trying to replicate during the experiment. Again, this fits with a definition of fluency as a working knowledge of language for the protagonist’s everyday – not everyone else’s. On a related note, it might be quite shocking to note the inclusion of the verb ‘smoke’ these days. Of course, such observations are part of the charm of finding personal vocabulary lists like these: their quirkily subjective nature.

Other initial observations relate to the economy of some of the lower-frequency type of vocabulary. You might wonder, like I did, why some terms are included when they might be creatively paraphrased using other items on the list. Personally, I question why “sun” is there, when “big light”, accompanied by pointing at the sky, would do. Slightly paleolithic, admittedly. Miss Swanson sounds much more civilised than that.

Pidgin English

As a guide to speaking a language, the list is clearly missing something. In particular, her conception of vocabulary is of a set of discrete, individual blocks, without any comprehensive reference to the glue holding them together in speech. There are no grammar rules implied in this list method beyond the few verb tense pairs, a couple of declined verb forms (was, does etc.) and the probably unnecessary inclusion of the definite article.

You can get away without grammar, of course, in effect using the vocabulary with your own logic to create a kind of pidgin. Will that make for ‘good’ French, German, Spanish and so on? No, go the purists. But will it be communicative if you need a basic core fast? Absolutely!

Verbs for lift-off

Miss Swanson does give a nod to a certain kind of sentence glue, however. One of the most striking things about this core vocabulary is the preponderance of verbs. They make up a considerable portion of the magic 300. And with good reason: this super-category of words does a colossal amount of heavy lifting in terms of intention and meaning in a sentence.

Now, I’ve always championed the verb as a key fluency factor. In fact, you can just call me the Verb Guy, since I can’t get enough of them (I write apps to drill them in my spare time!). Miss Swanson clearly spotted the communicative power of verbs, and focusing on verb tricks like employing modal sentence frames can really boost your conversational power, too.

A pinch of salt (and a spoonful of sugar)

So there you have it: a recipe for getting by on just a handful of words. Serve with a dollop of gloriously eccentric sugar and a medium-sized pinch of salt.

But even if the Magic 300 needs some tweaking to our individual circumstances, it strikes me that Miss Swanson was most definitely onto something. Her approach lights a pathway towards communicating – fast – in any language. Beyond that, the highly personal, practical nature of her list makes for a charming and intriguing window onto the world of someone in love with language and words. There is something  very familiar about Miss Swanson that is reflected in all of us linguaphiles.

This long-forgotten experiment attracts the extreme linguist in me, I must admit. If functional fluency can be acquired from a carefully selected core vocabulary, then maybe it is that simple to add a third, fourth, fifth language – and the rest!

What would your 300 look like? Could you get away with fewer than 300 words? What would you add or replace to Miss Swanson and Mr McLennan’s lists? And of the languages you know a little of, how many have you reached Swanson’s functional fluency in? Let us know in the comments!

The Terracotta Warriors would no doubt fare very well on the Duolingo leaderboards.

Battleground Duolingo : Sun Tzu’s Art of Language Learning

Duolingo aficionados cannot have not have failed to miss the recent frenzy over competitive leaderboards. Perhaps you have – no doubt luckily – escaped the red mist and hidden sensibly away from the hordes. Instead, you might have recognised it in the glazed eyes of language learning friends and family who have succumbed.

Yes, Duolingo is merciless: it has been taking brave, eager, wide-eyed language explorers and ruthlessly transforming them into gladiators, one against the other.

The unintended consequence of all this is a new tribe of learner. It has spawned a vast band of Duo warriors. And warriors have one aesthetic: the Art of War. It’s no stretch to claim that Duolingo league tables have given rise to a code of conduct worthy of Sun Tzu himself.

Those tempting charms and glinting jewels wove their tentacles around me tightly, I must admit. So here, I share what I have learnt of this dark art. And, on a more serious note, how the whole shebang can help – or hinder, if we’re not careful – our language learning!

Duolingo: The Art of strigine strategy

Strategy is everything. What kind of warrior are you? There are three key tactics in the path to strigine victory. (Aye. I had to look that word up too.)

Runaway train

The runaway train is the blunt instrument of linguistic military tactics. It demands quick action. Straight off the mark on a Monday morning, the warrior owlet will steam ahead a few thousand points, leaving competitors scrabbling in the dust.

Fighters will have their go-to weapons at hand: the expert topic they can test on repeatedly to bank easy points. They will only switch to more complex instruments – higher level topics – when they are at a safe distance.

Keep looking over your shoulder, though. Those sneaky co-combatants will usually give valant chase. There is nothing more panic-inducing than seeing your closest challengers clock up the points at a rate of knots. Especially if you are stuck somewhere, unable to use your phone for a while…

Duolingo Runaway Train

Duolingo Runaway Train (usernames have been hidden to protect the innocent!)

Lurking with the pack

No time for a relentless sprint? Then lurk with the rest of the pack until the time comes to strike.

This strategy involves keeping pace with the frontrunners, jostling and leapfrogging daily. The sly player will hang back in third or fourth, so as not to induce phone notification panic in the unsuspecting leader. Of course, that is for the dogs on Sunday, as the whole stage is set up for an epic battle for first place.

The upside? Less time-intensive means less battle-weary so soon. And the slow creep will drive your opponents crazy. But be prepared for vocab carnage on Sunday evening!

Duolingo Lurking With The Pack

Lurking With The Pack

The surprise attack

Everybody loves an underdog. Except Duolingo users you unleash this strategy on!

The surprise attacker keeps back a fair distance, biding time at the bottom of the table. It’s an easy week for this Duolingo paladin, merely keeping pace with the minimum amount of effort per day. That way, nobody suspects…

Suddenly, on Sunday night, your powers are unleashed. You thrash away at the keyboard or touch-screen for hours, rising like a phoenix to overtake your clueless adversaries. You were down – but never out.

The price you pay? Well, your whole Sunday, I’m afraid. Because this warrior ain’t going anywhere while there are several thousand points to make up. But it’s worth it to grin from the top of victory mountain. Right?

I just hope there isn’t a runaway train at the top of your leaderboard…

Basking in the glory

And there you have it. A battle plan any self-respecting warlord would have been proud of.

But of course, the warrior is also advised to take a large pinch of salt with every pre-fight meal. Duolingo battleboards are joyful, gamified fun for everyone invested in the system, but not to be taken too seriously.

The question on every fighter’s lips: do they actually work?

Everything in moderation

Well, competitive league-tabling is a bit of fun at best, and nigglingly passive aggressive at worst. The watchful, always-on mindset it fosters is a hoot, but it can get a little fatiguing and time-consuming in the long run. That goes especially for naturally competitive people, whose buttons are furiously pressed by all this. (Yup, me.)

That said, the approach is a wonderful motivator for ensuring very regular practice. But it does require discipline on the part of the user, as the format may encourage some poor habits. The most time-wasting of these is going for easy points, rather than slogging away at difficult units for the same gain. The best way to beat this temptation is to impose house rules on yourself, such as only mining points from higher-level topics.

Seeking points in new places

On the other hand, the hunger for points fosters some very good habits, too, such as dabbling. Points pressure makes it doubly rewarding to dip into the first lessons of a brand new language. This is not least because initial lessons on Duolingo tend to be rather short, and yield a speedy cache of 10-15 points per shot.

Elementary Turkish, for example, has been a saving grace for me this week. Teşekkürler! Beyond the helping hand up a few rungs, a dip into Turkish might just have given me enough of a taste to keep going with it at some point.

Talking of quick point gains, there is also the incentive to dive back into stronger, but less-practised languages. That would be Spanish and French for me, and golding up my Duolingo trees for that pair has become a side goal in itself. A focus on your already proficient languages can also avoid the cognitive dissonance you feel at seeing your developmental languages many levels about them! Let’s get that Duolingo profile matching your real-life skills, eh?

Need for speed

Finally, success in these competitions is often about speed. And speed-translating is an excellent route to building muscle memory in your developing languages. Challenging the brain to deliver an accurate answer within seconds is handy training for routine quick thinking. Because being fast can be handy, both in Duolingo battles and real life, when we often have to seize upon the correct turn of phrase on the spot.

Duolingo have once again played a blinder with addictive learning, turning us all into lingua-warriors. With a bit of healthy moderation, learning this Art of War could build some excellent new habits!

Dabbling with languages is like trying all the sweeties! Image from freeimages.com

Dabbling to joy : allowing yourself guilt-free language exploration

For many, August is the month of holidays. This year, I made it my month of dabbling!

Planning, routine and system are crucial in language learning. But there should always be time for a bit of ranging and roving. Dabbling – or the casual exploration of new languages – is when passionate polyglots really let their hair down. And there are so many opportunities for it these days, with multiple online platforms offering quick, easy – and free – taster courses.

Two-timing – or a hall pass?

For many of us, it can be a real source of guilt to stray from our core language projects. After all, when we look elsewhere, doesn’t it almost feel like we are cheating on those languages closest to our hearts and minds? That our attention should be completely and unwaveringly directed towards our greatest goals? However, giving yourself free rein to explore can be a liberating experience.

Learning to embrace a linguistically curious nature is a healthy step towards becoming a well-rounded polyglot. The joy – and utility – of dabbling is just too good to deny it to yourself. Seizing upon that spirit, I decided to make August my Dabble Month. I used the time to play with everything from Italian to Turkish to Swahili, chiefly thanks to Duolingo. The extra leaderboard points were very helpful, of course! But the utility of dabbling goes far beyond that.

So what can dabbling do for us? And why should we purposefully make time for it between all our ‘serious’ learning projects?

Dabbling out the box

Polyglots, like so many other animals, are creatures of habit. Now, there are benefits to sticking with familiar pastures. It can be very handy to study languages from closely related families, for example. For a start, picking new ones up is so much easier if the rules and structures are already familiar to you.

But sometimes, material can be so familiar that the element of challenge evaporates. We no longer have to think, or try, with the same tenacity. And that defeats one huge benefit of language learning in terms of head health: the mental gym, working out the plasticity of our brains with new puzzles. When dabbling, you suddenly challenge yourself to make sense of new, unfamiliar patterns. Instead of falling back on your automatic, ingrained thinking, you must conceive brand new categories.

Just take a bite of Turkish, for example. To those focused tightly on Indo-European languages, it is a revelation. Its definite accusative and vowel harmony system require IE-soaked newbies to think on their feet. And just a brief dip in the water reveals that there is much more to language life than S-V-O! It is a big, wide and varied world of words out there.

Sticking to the same language family presents just one picture of how language can be, how human beings perform things with languages. Straying from the same path opens up the box.

Making connections

That said, we can also turn this argument on its head. Through dabbling with closely related languages, you can add extra strings to your polyglot bow very quickly and easily.

But there is an additional upside to this. Getting to know your core language’s closest cousins ultimately means you understand it more intimately, too. Seeing how two related languages treat the same root teaches a lot about the development of vocabulary and sound systems, for instance. And that can only cement your proficiency in the key language.

Naturally, you might worry about getting things mixed up. Personally, I put off exploring Swedish for years for fear of ‘contaminating’ my Norwegian. In fact, our brains are much more resilient to this than we think, and research into bilinguals provides some evidence for this. As personal proof, I recently spent a couple of weeks marvelling over the differences between Norwegian and Swedish (Coffee and wine are neuter?! Wolf is varg and not ulv?!) and I feel more informed, not more confused.

The grass is sometimes greener

Polyglots are always on the lookout for their next big language love. And dabbling is a great way to test the water for new projects on the polyglot trail.

Remind yourself that there is no harm in doing a few tentative lessons in a new language to see if you like it. Learn a couple of basic words and phrases, and listen out for whether those sounds speak to your heart. Your never know – those first steps just might turn into a lifelong passion.

Of course, shopaholic bibliophiles (of which there are many of us) may also have a ready-made dabbling shelf  thanks to past purchases, as yet not fully explored. I am certainly guilty of this. Simply think of them as passion flowers yet to blossom!

The shelf of forgotten language projects - the perfect place for dabbling!

The shelf of long forgotten language learning purchases, or ‘passion flowers yet to blossom’ – the perfect place for a bit of dabbling!

Keeping it fun

This last point speaks for itself. We are polyglots; languages are just excellent, brain-bristling fun.

As with all things we love, it is healthy to let yourself off the leash sometimes. All work and no play can dull the shine of even the deepest passions. Allow yourself to enjoy a leisurely ramble without the pressure and constraints of performing or achieving.

It doesn’t matter if you have zero plans at all for using the fruits of your dabbling. It doesn’t even matter if you feel you won’t remember much of it at all in the long term (although give yourself the benefit of the doubt – even when you feel you have learnt little, something will stick!). If you have fun in the process, that alone is a healthy outcome.

Think of it as naughty but nice food. Cakes, chocolate, biscuits… All that stuff we sensibly keep a lid on most of the time. But now and again, it is so satisfying to gorge on goodies at a party or a meal out. If you love languages like you love food, then allow yourself a binge from time to time!

Dabbling to a happier life

In short, dabbling can truly jolly up your language learning routine. And naturally, those benefits are not confined to languages alone. Be a life explorer, and dabble across all your fields of interest. Programmers, try a new programming language or framework. Cinema buffs, plump for a totally different genre for your next few choices. Sporty? Try an completely alternative approach or discipline.

Dabbling is invaluable prep for life’s unpredictable nature. Dabble, and keep that mind ready for anything the world can cook up.

Streamers

I Get So Emotional, Bébé : Using Positive Emotion to Improve Vocabulary Recall

That positive emotion enhances learning seems intuitive to us. How much more do we learn feeling motivated and wired, compared to those times we try to cram when feeling flat and uninspired?

Unsurprisingly, there is a heap of research that backs up the intuition. Some investigations, such as this 2017 paper, focus on the exact mechanism operating between emotion and memory. A key factor in enhanced learning, and later recall, appears to be the way positive, heightened emotion focuses the attention tightly on the stimulus – our learning material. The brain attaches a greater salience to the stimulus, encoding the information for readier recall later.

The importance of these “focal enhancements” of emotion on memory has spawned rafts of scientific papers on the subject. Classroom educators are already working these findings into their practice.

So how can it help us language learners?

Once more, with feeling

Firstly, creating happy thoughts at the point of initial memorisation is not always the easiest place to start happying up your learning. It is rather impractical to set up all-singing, all-dancing scenarios during your systematic vocabulary work. Regular, planned drilling with tools like Anki will always be a rather straightforward and plain – though invaluable – technique.

But you can plan to use new material in a way that associates material with a positive emotional response later. This takes a little forward-thinking, and involves setting up occasions where language use triggers smile momentsthose socially rewarding, oxytocin-bound interactions that feed our social reward circuits and give us warm, fuzzy feelings. Precisely those feelings are the ones to give our words and phrases salience within the recording brain.

If you have face-to-face lessons, for example, is there a humorous or colloquial phrase using new vocabulary that you can roll off to your tutor? Quotation archive sites are great to search for these. Similarly, could you Google a joke or pun using some of your recent word additions, and reel it off to your captive audience?

Making a conversation partner smile or laugh with an unexpected aphorism is a wonderful way to unleash that elusive burst of pride / surprise / joy. Chances are that you will recall the associated words or phrases much more readily than otherwise. You will have tied the material to the lived experience of positive feedback.

Anticipated emotion

Setting the scene for future reward leads us to another key link between emotion and learning: anticipation. Looking forward to the fruits of your mental labour is an extremely powerful motivator. Just the expectation of feedback is enough to increase engagement and focus – and through that, memory. For example, one particular research paper concludes that simply anticipating speedy feedback sufficed to increase performance.

The easiest practical lesson to take from this is that we need something to look forward to when learning. Working with a tutor who supplies constructive, regular feedback is one route. But even as a lone learner, there are some simple ways to build anticipation into your positive feedback loop.

Informal test-based feedback, for example, is available in all sorts of languages online. This German self-test on the Goethe Institute site is a great example. On the other hand, if you like your feedback more formalised, cultural institutes frequently offer official exams of proficiency. Many lone learners work towards gaining accreditation such as the Bergenstest in Norwegian, or the JLPT in Japanese. The anticipation of getting solid results can drive a learner forward, especially in the absence of direct teacher or peer feedback. Failing that, even the goal of doing well on a competitive platform like Duolingo can inspire a positive buzz.

Returning to our gregarious friend oxytocin, social anticipation can be the warmest and fuzziest kind. Using your languages socially need not mean a fully-fledged trip abroad, of course. Any kind of interaction, be it at a local language café group, with native speakers at work, or just fellow learners, can be the emotional carrot to your language learning donkey.

Clowning around

Of course, humour is something that works particularly well in these social settings. Getting a laugh from creative, or – let’s joyfully admit it – silly use of language, can be a nice way to make vocabulary stick, too.

The proof of this is written all over the internet, and it starts with Duolingo. The behemoth of online language learning resources famously uses comedic sentences throughout its language modelling. People who find something funny want to talk about it, naturally. And Duolingo users have turned to one particular feed (forgive the name) to share their favourite eccentricities of the platform.

The moral of the tale? Use inane, ridiculous, silly language to practise. Be a clown. Talk about it. Share it with fellow learners and subject your wider family and friends to it. Laugh – and remember.

 

The joy of teaching

Finally, it is hard to underestimate one joy close to the hearts of linguaphiles: the joy of teaching. The fact that teaching others helps our own learning is well documented. But that thrill of seeing something click for someone else plays right along with the positive emotion game.

Bust this myth before you start: you do not have to be an expert to teach something. You just need a bit of knowledge you can share with someone else. If you have a learning buddy, or compliant family member or friend, share with them your most recent observations about your target language. Make your explanation as interesting and illuminating as possible – and enjoy the click when it happens. Remembering the moment you taught the material to another person will be a superb hook to remember the material itself.

Little and often

As the examples show, working positive emotion into your learning routine does not mean maintaining constant jollity. Emotional content need not be dramatic or earth-shattering. In fact, it should not be so. The same research suggests that strong, negative emotional states like stress can have the opposite effect.

What’s more, we clearly cannot sustain an environment of constant emotional excitement. Even if that were possible, it would be counter-productive. Our brains are not so easily tricked. It would simply become our new ‘normal’, and all the salience benefits lost.

Instead, the methods outlined above are some routes to routinely and subtly get happy with your language learning and practice. Stay positive, stay connected, and enjoy all those motivation and memory benefits!