Sunlight through the clouds. Image from FreeImages.com

The Power of One Deep Breath

Content, content, content. So often, the sole focus is on what we study. We hear a lot less about the setting, the timing and the flow. But these can have a huge impact on learning success. And something as simple as a long, deep breath and a moment of pause can be the difference between successful study and an uphill slog.

I hit my latest brick wall this week. Studying, working, eating, relaxing in the same place was taking its toll. There was just no ebb and flow, no contrast between functions.

And contrast is important. Human beings need variety. We crave perpetual motion. Lockdown robs us of that, and even the most committed of us can struggle without the punctuation of life’s usual rhythms, the momentum of an ever-changing background.

It hardly helps that for many language enthusiasts, the arcs of motion usually swing well beyond house, home, library and coffee shop. There is solidarity on social media, where once avid travellers console each other over the Covid wing-clipping. A static, motionless life can have a stalling effect on motivation.

It is time to take a breath of fresh air.

Catching your breath

Fortunately, inspiration was close at hand. I am lucky enough to count a bunch of wonderful professional coaches amongst my friends. This enthusiastic group is adept at helping others overcome stumbling blocks in the way of achieving their goals. I recognise the power of good coaching – I have first-hand experience of how working one-to-one with a coach can bring great results in language learning.

Through one of these wonderful colleagues*, I recently came across a simple space clearing exercise. Now space is what I desperately needed. With every task, every chore, every project running into a big amorphous mass, it felt like there was no separation, no flow. I was going straight from household chores to work tasks to close study, but without the usual change of scene or mental breather. Mental baggage from one task would hang around in the next. 

Logjam.

The antidote uses deep, focused breathing to clear the air – quite literally – before a focused session. Essentially, it is a forced stop and reset before changing gear. My coaching colleague uses it to great effect at the start of his coaching one-to-ones, but it is just as helpful before a study bout.

The technique is simple. Sitting comfortably at your workspace, close your eyes. Inhale deeply three times, exhaling each breath in a slow, controlled way. Focus closely on the cool air entering your lungs, then exiting, warmed by your body heat. Then, take in another long, deep breath, and hold it for two or three seconds before exhaling. When you are ready, open your eyes.

You just added a bit of sorely needed punctuation to your routine.

The whole thing takes less than a minute and requires zero practice or tuition. I have tried it when switching between work and study over the past week, and it is an excellent quick fix. It eases the transition from one mode to another, creating a stopgap, a fresh start, and minimising that tendency to carry across mental baggage and distractions.

Mindful learning

Of course, this is is the bread and butter of mindfulness – a general approach to mental wellbeing deemed effective enough be run as part of student support programmes in a number of UK schools. Fans of mindful apps like Headspace will likewise be very familiar with these kinds of techniques using breathing to slow down, step back and reset the mindset.

That said, there can be a certain reluctance amongst many to try out these techniques. I should know – I was initially sceptical myself. With an eye on the soley practical sphere, the learning content alone, spending time getting the mind ready to learn retreats into the background a little. It can also feel – let’s admit it – a bit silly sitting at your desk with your eyes closed when you first try it.

But the space clearing technique shows that mindful approaches need not take up any significant amount of time, or even require lots of background research. A couple of deep breath – that really is all there is to it. No long-winded, complicated techniques to master.

And even if the desk-breathing technique is not for you, you can create your own punctuation points. Jog. Do five minutes of simple stretching. Make a coffee. Have a bop around the living room to your favourite song.

Anything can be your one deep breath, as long as it clears your head space.

*Big thanks to Simon for introducing me to the space clearing technique!

Accept yourself as a wonderful, fallible human being. Image from freeimages.com.

Be fallible! Building resilience as a language learner

Human beings are fallible. We all make mistakes.

But our natural instinct is often to feel shame, and try to hide those mistakes. And so, this week, I give you the pep talk I would have loved as a newcomer to language learning. It is a lesson in the art of self-acceptance as a wonderful, fallible human being.

Starting out

When we engage in any passion, we get excited. We skip, run, and plough headfirst and giddy into new experiences. We race ahead, full of anticipation, eyes darting gleefully about, trying to take it all in. Learning new skills can be exhilarating!

Sometimes, however, we fall.

There’s no escaping the fact that sometimes, failing can feel like a painful knock. And it comes in many forms. It could be the local who brushed you off rudely after your attempts to speak the language. It could be a grumpy teacher giving corrections in an unhelpful, unsympathetic tone. In these days of lives lived online, it may frequently come in the form of unrequested, unconstructive feedback. A recent article of mine, for example, attracted commentary which came across as, shall we say, well grounded, but not exactly friendly.

What do all these things have in common? They all involve a stumble or a fall in front of others who react negatively. And they involve a degree of shame that can leave us questioning our credibility in what suddenly seems like an insurmountably giant world. Shame is a terrifyingly fierce demotivator. All at once, that excitement pales against a niggling feeling of being a fraud or impostor.

Now, it is easy to let these things hurt us. What is harder, but so much more useful in the long run, is to let these things galvanise us. So how can we best buttress ourselves against mean-spirited engagements?

Embracing your fallibility is key.

Fantastically fallible

We are all fallible. We all make mistakes. Not to do so is simply not to be human.

Look at it this way – if we refuse to accept we are fallible, it is tantamount to saying we have nothing to learn. That we are perfect already. And resting on your laurels is a great way to stop learning anything at all.

It’s a salient point in a world full of ‘perfect’ polyglot role models. Who do you relate to more – someone who admits that the road is sometimes bumpy, or someone who claims to have all the answers?

Cultivating thankfulness

As language learners, we expose ourselves to the risk of being very fallible in a very public arena. The trick to developing a thicker skin is to cultivate a thankfulness and gratitude for every smarting knock.

Yes! If someone knocks you down, thank them for it. They have given you a gift – even if it was with a grimace.

Feedback of all kinds helps us to improve, even the curmudgeonly kind. See that negative shroud as a product of the kind of day the other person is having, rather than a fault of your own. Then take whatever lesson was wrapped in it, move on, and grow.

In learning and using foreign languages, we ultimately deal with people, and people are inherently unpredictable. Many will be lovely. Others not so much. Simply face them all with no expectation but to learn. Putting yourself out there with this shield of thankfulness is an excellent way to practise and build resilience.

You might worry that your failures come from trying to do too much, too soon. Are you putting yourself out there too early? Are you trying to run before you can walk? But it is only through pushing boundaries that we progress. For a little extra support, you can also try safe environments to make mistakes amongst friends, like the excellent 30-Day Speaking Challenge.

Keep trying to run. Those falls are worth the ground gained.

Stand up. Invite criticism. Accept that it might not always be constructive. And be proud of yourself as a fallible, but ever-learning human being.

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.

Is your learning on fire? Just check your streak! Image from freeimages.com.

Feel the heat: get a visual grasp on Anki with this natty plug-in

Anki is an incredibly powerful tool with a heap of learning science behind it.

But do you ever feel, as an Anki user, that the process is all a bit of a mystery? That, instead of being passively fed material, you might like to glimpse inside the flashcard box and find out a little more about its electronic, spaced-repetition plans for you?

A chance question from a teacher and polyglot pal this week helped open up that box for me. And it’s worth sharing this little-known secret with anyone who want a bit more data than the all-knowing app is ordinarily willing to provide.

Streak test for gold

It all starts with a streak. A learning streak, that is: a golden motivational corridor in educational gamification.

Streak is the presentation of unbroken, habitual use of the app as an achievement. And it has long been a staple of gamified platforms like Duolingo, which quickly grew on its sticky back. The streak almost becomes an end in itself, powering the language learning along with it. Proud players share their incredible feats with others who hope to reach the same heights.

While Duolingo's streak feature is very popular, Anki does not have one.

On the face of it, streak does seem like an intuitively natural thing to want to know as a learner. How committed am I, in terms of how regularly I study? So it comes across as an odd omission from the standard Anki installation.

It all came to light when language buddy Marcel (so often a source of tips on everything language learning) asked if I knew where to find streak reporting in Anki. Despite the raft of data in the app’s familiar stats section, streak was nowhere to be seen. I was stumped.

Fortunately, a natty little plugin came to the rescue.

Review Heatmap

Review Heatmap adds a panel of information to the summary screens in the desktop version of Anki. Although the extra information seems quite standard, you might otherwise rack your brains to locate it in vain in a vanilla installation.

Although still in Beta for the latest 2.1.x stream of Anki releases (with a version for older versions here), it runs reliably and instantly exposes useful stats on the very first run.

The Review Heatmap plugin for Anki

The Review Heatmap plugin for Anki

Learning how you learn

Along with streak info, you can see a couple of other handy stats that do not feature in Anki’s regular data breakdown, including your average cards-per-day rate. And knowing about your learning is valuable meta-knowledge that can be just as useful as first-level learning material like vocabulary lists.

For example, take a look at the mass of colour in the plug-in display. Each square represents a day of your Anki year. You see the blanks? Those are the days on which you broke your streak. Interrogating the data like this can really help in the quest to learn how you learn.

Is there a pattern to them? Do they happen regularly? And can you use that information to preempt interruptions to your learning, and avoid them in future? In my case, hovering over my streak break blanks confirms what I suspected – they were days when family were visiting. Now I know this, I can try in future to review my Anki decks well in advance when I know I will have people round.

Streaks are not just about fun and pride. They encapsulate knowledge about your learning. And knowledge is power.

Pick a card, Anki card

The power of streaks is only one great way that Review Heatmap can boost your Anki learning. Like many things that just work, the app can be something of a black box. We adds words, Anki feeds them back to us using its clever algorithms. But sometimes, it can be informative to get a grasp on the workings inside that machine.

Exploring the heat map of coloured squares – the visual display style that gives the plug-in its name – can give you a more instinctive feel for how Anki schedules its cards. The darker the colour, the more cards scheduled on that day. By casting an eye over that annual map, you get a sense of the ebb and flow of card reviews, past and future. Hovering over individual squares even yields the exact number of reviews due on that day.

Not only that, but it is oddly satisfying to flick forward to subsequent years, and see reviews getting more and more infrequent. That gradual thinning out of card reviews is something special: it is Anki’s algorithm determining that you have, in accordance with the theory behind the system, memorised those words good and proper.

Obviously, numbers shift and change if you are actively adding cards all the time. But the visual snapshot is a fascinating way to start understanding how the spaced repetition approach plays out in real time.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Obviously, it also doesn’t hurt that Review Heatmap looks pretty funky in your Anki app. And there are some gorgeous colour options in the settings, too!

Turn up the heat

If you are ready to turn up the heat on your Anki routine by adding streak info and more, Review Heatmap is an essential add-on. Although it only boosts the desktop program, rather than the mobile apps, its insights can give you a real bird’s eye view over your learning.

As always with plug-ins, be sure to back up your Anki data before giving it a whirl.

 

Eat the frog - not literally, of course, but in a language learning sense! Image from freeimages.com.

Frogs for breakfast! Language planning and the early bird

Do you ever get to the end of your language learning day, week or month with a heap of tasks to get through from your planning? Does your joy turn into a chore when you realise how many Anki flashcards have built up, or how many pages of your book you need to read to keep on track?

Then maybe it’s time to start breaking the fast on a bit of frog.

Before you baulk at the prospect, don’t worry! It’s not as gruesome as it sounds. The eat-the-frog principle is about getting big tasks out of the way early on. You would want to get that task out of the way as quickly as possible if you had to do it, right? Well, you can similarly prioritise lengthy and effort-intensive learning activities to do early in your planning.

Applying eat-the-frog planning to your learning, you avoid letting routine tasks queue up and become overwhelming later on. It is a stock technique of productivity coaches. Self-development author Brian Tracy has written a whole book on digesting your grenouille early in the day.

A more palatable metaphor?

If the frog image is a little too disturbing, then perhaps there is another way to think of this. Last year, I came across a wonderful idiom in Spanish: comerse un marrón, literally to eat up a chestnut. That chestnut is the unpleasant morsel to swallow, the tedious task to get out of the way. The sooner you get it done, the better you feel.

But, candied chestnuts also being tasty treats, perhaps this is a more apt way to think of our language tasks. Lovely, but leaving them all at once to eat at the end of the day will do us no good at all!

Eat up those chestnuts early! Image from freeimages.com.

Eat up those chestnuts early!

Language learners tend to place high expectations on themselves. To keep these many frogs and chestnuts as sweet as possible, it can help to combine weekly planning with a regular routine to tackle them systematically.

Build a morning routine

The business of simply living a life can really throw our language learning off the tracks sometimes. Job, family, friends, other interests – they all suck up our time. It’s tempting to leave our languages to the end of the day, after all that is done. After all, we love languages, don’t we? To indulge in them in the last, quiet hours of the day should be a treat. Right?

Well, in our passion for the subject, we forget how energy-intensive study is. Often, all I want to do after the sun goes down is chill. For sure, certain language exercises fit the bill – foreign language Netflix, passive podcast listening and so on – but more vanilla study activities like textbooks and Anki decks require our full attention and effort.

Moving some of these tasks to the morning can have a drastic effect on your study stamina. You not only have the benefit of a more fresher, less depleted you. You also avoid that sense of stress and urgency from running out of road at the end of the day.

Anki cards, for example, soon pile up if you leave them. It’s an uncomfortable feeling when, at 11pm, you realise that you have to shift 80 card reviews before the pile up on tomorrow’s to-do list. Then there’s the Duolingo XP that you need to get to maintain your streak – but it’s nearly the end of the day. That stress makes the task all the more uncomfortable.

Instead, swallow that frog for breakfast. On the train to work, at your desk before you start your daily tasks, during your morning break. Blast them when you have time and energy in abundance.

Micro-task regime

This kind of planning works especially well with smaller, more granular micro-tasks. These are typically standalone activities, taking 5-15 minutes each. Vocabulary review and online / app tutorial sections are a good example, although you could turn any activity into a micro-task. For instance, a ten-minute session of foreign language reading soon mounts up over time. This works particularly well if you are reading a book divided into very short chapters (like the Norwegian crime novel I’m currently reading!).

My own weekly language learning to-do currently looks something like this, with both daily and weekly tasks. As the foundation for these weekly planning lists, I use the 12-week year system, which helps focus my efforts on defined goals.

Planning a language learning week in Evernote

Planning a language learning week in Evernote

Before work tends to be my ideal time for frog-fighting. I try to get my 100-200 points on Duolingo then, as well as all of my Anki card reviews. One thing I know for sure: if I haven’t shifted the bulk of it by the evening, it feels like more of a chore. If I blast it in the morning, I not only have my routine learning / review done and dusted. I also get a feel-good buzz of “this is a productive start to the day!” from it.

If you follow a seven-day cycle like this, the same applies to your entire week. If, by Saturday, you still have a heap of weekly goals to tick off, the pressure mounts. The stress that causes is the biggest passion killer for a subject you love. Instead, try tackling your heftier language tasks, like active podcast listening, at the beginning of the week.

Language learning should never become a chore. Prevent your own frogs / chestnuts / other appropriate metaphors from getting big, ugly and stressful by building a structured morning routine. Frogs for breakfast – sunny side up!

Few things give more motivation than the prospect of having an audience for your efforts. (Image from freeimages.com)

Motivation lacking? Do it for an audience!

Motivation can sometimes seem like a scarce resource. Simply wanting to achieve, for achievement’s sake, might not suffice to push you over the finish line. You need a bit extra.

I found myself in this situation recently, working on a goal that straddled both language learning and software development. For some time, I’d wanted to create something completely different from my usual fare and out of my comfort zone: an app for learning and practising verb meanings in Mandarin Chinese. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to go for it.

Learning through making

Now for me, Mandarin Chinese is a totally new and exciting departure. I haven’t studied many non-Indo-European languages (some Modern Hebrew and a tiny bit of Japanese barely count). Putting together apps in new languages is one route I use as an introduction to them for my own learning. Therefore, the idea of working on a brand new one filled me with positive anticipation!

That was, at first. Getting started was easy. With reliable sources for the learning content, and a solid framework app to build it into, I got off to a good start.

However, I soon slowed down to a halt.

What was wrong? Was the language content no longer captivating me? No, not that – I still revelled in the new words and concepts I was learning along the way. Was the technical side losing its fascination? Not at all, as I was still spending quality time on similar technical projects without any signs of boredom. So what had happened to my motivation?

The problem, I realised, was this: it is hard to work in a bubble.

Lone ranger

Humans are social creatures. We are built to be involved with other people in all of our exploits. Working with others, either through study buddying or teaching, can be a real shot in the arm for language learning, for example. We simply work better when we are not isolated.

The truth is, my Chinese app endeavours had become divorced from this fact. I was a lone ranger, operating in a bubble. The issue was not simply that I was developing alone. There are plenty of very successful, lone app developers! Rather, I was creating it with nobody in mind (beyond myself).

This resulted in fuzzy goal definition. No deadlines, no direction, no sense of wider purpose. Instead, just a vague ambling towards an ill-defined end point, where I would have eventually created something I deemed useful and learnt a bit along the road.

So what to do?

The obvious answer was actually right under my nose the whole time. A good friend of mine is currently learning Chinese at level A1-2 and is an iPhone user. Via Apple’s TestFlight platform, I could easily roll out test versions of the app online for my fellow linguist buddy to test out. What better audience could I wish for?

Performance anxiety

At this point, you might wonder how on Earth it took so look for that solution to occur to me. Moving in language learning circles, I have countless friends studying any number of languages at a given point. You’d think I would be badgering them constantly with new app ideas.

The issue is that sometimes, the idea of an audience for your work / efforts / brainchild / ambitions is downright scary. We all crave approval from our peers. Self-doubt gets in the way. It requires no small degree of bravery to put yourself out there, open to criticism (constructive or otherwise) from people you think a lot of.

Will they like what I produce? Can they be honest with me about it if they don’t? Would they think less of me if my initial attempts miss the mark?

It is utterly normal and completely human to be put off by this kind of performance anxiety.

Perhaps the best advice I’ve come across is simple optimism: think the best of your audience. If you enlist the help of friends, then already, the most supportive people have your back. Most people, in my experience, truly do want to help, rather than knock you down.

Needless to say, initial reports from my tester friend are warm, well-meaning and positive: new words learnt, fun had learning them, and genuinely useful feedback given.

And that feeling of being helpful provides a ton of motivation.

Language learning for an audience

The example I’ve given might seem like a very specific case of language learning tech. But you can apply the same principle to language learning, pure and simple.

First, ask: who could my audience be? As a linguist, there are myriad scenarios you can imagine as end goals for the task of communicating.

Do you have workplace colleagues you can make smile with a few words in their native language? Are you planning a trip to the target language country and want to attend an event where you have to speak that language exclusively?

It needn’t even be a speaking task. Perhaps there is a social media group you’d like to join in with. I recently joined a Norwegian music discussion forum on Facebook, for example. The desire to chat with fellow fans is a great audience-based motivation to brush up my norsk.

Once your audience is defined, let go of your performance anxiety. Have faith in the kindness of others to help you reach your goals. Use humour, as it can really break down barriers. And above all, enjoy the interaction!

Whatever your chosen audience, incorporate it into your goal planning and let it become your motivation. That single social aspect will so much more sharply define your language learning objectives!

Incidentally, if any iOS users are interested in being a tester for my nascent app, please let me know!

Language learning during busy times can be a bit of a blur. (Image from freeimages.com)

Give yourself a break! Fluid language learning planning for busy people

How was your November? Mine was busy. Very busy. As fulfilling and rewarding as they usually are, work, family and friends ended up filling nearly every minute. And, if you’re like me, you’ll find that life, in these busier moments, can knock your language learning right off course.

Tools for staying the course

Now, there are plenty of great ways to try and keep on course. My personal go-to tool for weekly language learning planning is Evernote. I take time each Sunday to plan in tasks for the next week, basing them on my progress over the previous seven days. During the week, Evernote acts as the brain centre for my learning.

In our busier moments, however, our plans can become fixed and rigid. And that rigidity can sometimes overwhelm us.

Over a quiet Summer, your 20-point weekly to-do plan might be a piece of cake. But when life gets hectic, you might find yourself ticking off just a quarter of your tasks. That, quite simply, is demotivating. You feel like a failure, not coping, struggling to fit in your learning. Confidence knocked, you slowly slide into achieving less and less.

The answer? You need to accept that you are not a machine operating at a constant level of capacity, and add some fluidity to your planning.

Your capacity is not constant, but varying

In my case, I’d fallen into a particularly poor habit that was so far from self-care. Tired after a long week, and in total chill-mode on a Sunday evening, I stopped sparing the time to evaluate my previous week and plan the next. Instead, I simply copied and pasted the previous week’s plan to the next week, blanking off the ticks. An unthinking carbon copy.

The problem here is that every week is different. Expecting to take on an equal amount of labour at a constant rate is, frankly, putting an unreasonable demand on yourself. Our capacity is finite, and life’s demands are always changing. Pretty soon, I found myself filling in fewer and fewer of those ticks from a copied list that was based on my capacity months ago, and not today.

It was a shortcut, but a mindless, inappropriate one. It was actually costing me progress in the long run.

My engine was overheating, and I needed cooling down.

Strip off to cool down

First things first: in this situation, you need to force a break. You need to get off the ride in order to cool down and catch your breath back. It’s perhaps obvious, but as with many obvious things, sometimes we need to be reminded about them.

The easiest way to do this is simply to strip your weekly tasks right down to a bare minimum. What this bare minimum is, is up to you. It should consist of the things that are most important to you in your language learning, but things you can comfortably do in ’emergency mode’, without exacting too much energy from yourself.

Be honest about what you can realistically do right now, given your current circumstances and life events. In my case, my skeleton language learning plan was stripped down to simply these two tasks:

Now, that was quite a step down from the cascade of weekly tasks up to that point. Gone – for now – was the pressure to fit in X podcasts, Y chapters of a book, Z iTalki lessons. Instead, I recognised my need for space, and committed to maybe 15-20 minutes of maintenance every day instead of the frantic daily hamster wheel.

Back to full throttle – with care

Maintain this level for a week or two – just long enough to gather your thoughts and reset your pace. Then, with a constant eye on your energy levels, start adding tasks back in every week. Stay mindful of stress, and remain realistic about what you can do if things are still manic in the rest of your life. With a little care, you can work your way back to full throttle in a matter of weeks.

It can be hard acknowledging that you need some breathing space. But it is a vital skill to master in avoiding burnout. Self-honesty is worth its weight in gold for the self-powered learner. It should certainly count in your arsenal of language learning tricks, just as much as memorisation techniques and lesson preparation. The fluid planning that comes from it will pay dividends compared to a rigid, unyielding taskmaster approach.

Kylie Minogue performing in Hamburg, making a little German go a long way!

Language Economy, Kylie Style : Making a little go a long way

It’s not all about cramming as much as possible with language learning. Sometimes a little can go a long way. And on a language expedition and pop concert jaunt to Hamburg this week, I was reminded of just that.

To set the scene, here’s the story. For years, we’ve been following our friend James following Kylie around all of Europe. She has grown as dear to us as to him over the years, and a regular fixture on our calendars. Through partying along with our friend on his Kylie fixes, we’ve seen a host of wonderful towns and cities we might otherwise never have visited. And so it was that we were lucky enough to catch her on Saturday night performing her Golden Tour at the Mehr! Theater am Grossmarkt.

https://twitter.com/richwestsoley/status/1066457232961929216

Kylie is no stranger to languages, and has more than just a basic knowledge of French. But on Saturday night, she showed us all how to take just a little, and make it count!

You see, Kylie really made an effort to engage with the local crowd.  She peppered her performance with snippets of German, from a simple danke schön (thank you) to wie geht’s (how are you). It may have been just a little gesture, but each time she did it, the crowd lit up.

It’s a valuable lesson in using foreign languages: making even a small effort can pay dividends.

Spread the love

Of course, it is not confined to the big stage, either. That light-them-up magic is accessible to anyone, anywhere, armed with a few words. And being on holiday with friends is the perfect opportunity to encourage them to share the fun.

That said, it can be a big ask. Not everybody is comfortable putting themselves out there, and taking the risk to communicate in a new way. We linguists sometimes forget that, being so used to facing down our social fears. There’s the fear of ridicule, perhaps a hangover from unsupportive teachers at school.

There’s all that I’m no good at languages baggage.

But then, when friends finally dare, they experience that sorcery for themselves. When they get a big smile from the staff at the restaurant or bakery, it’s infectious. You see how proud they feel that they got it right, that it was understood, that it made the other person feel happy. They get a hint of that spark that we feel as language aficionados.

And that is a beautiful thing to see.

As language lovers, perhaps it is one of our duties to teach others how that feels.

A little can mean a lot

There are ways to make this magic even more powerful by choosing your words and phrases carefully. Not all phrases are created equal: some have a lot more to give than others – socially speaking.

Words for social niceties, for example – greeting, expressing gratitude, permission and so on – can be densely packed with multiple nuances of meaning. Often, what they mean depends not only on the words, but the context. This makes them versatile, adaptable and perfect for the ‘little goes a long way’ approach.

In German, for example, take the phrase bitte schön. As well as the stock response to thanks (as in “you’re welcome”), it has a catalogue of other translations, depending on the situation. You can use it when handing somebody something (“there you go”). You say it when you’re inviting somebody to go through a door before you do. It can be a polite way to say “please”. Just look at its Linguee page to see just how multifaceted it is.

Bitte schön is probably the most multipurpose phrase in the whole German language.

If you can tap into these rich seams of hyper-useful vocabulary when you start a language, or when you are travelling, you can truly spin a little out into a lot. Not only that, but they are so commonplace and repeated, that you will be acting and sounding like a native by using them all the time, just as native speakers do.

Even as a full-blown learner of a language, listening out for those extremely frequent, ‘social glue’ phrases is an important skill. It pays to spend a decent chunk of time on that little core of ‘niceties’ vocabulary, as you’ll be using it more than anything else in the target language country. A good place to look before you get there is the first couple of pages of any good phrasebook. You’ll usually find them included in the section on greetings and everyday expressions.

Trickles to torrents

We can use this little language trickery, even as seasoned linguists, to pack as much value into our experiences as possible – be they more extensive language projects, or brief, one-off trips. For instance, I had an opportunity to put it into practise in Slovenia recently, as an attendee at the Polyglot Conference.

As I tend to base my travel around my target language countries, I’m not often in the position of non-speaker tourist. Beyond dobar dan (good day), hvala (thanks) and a handful of other expressions, I didn’t have time to do Slovene justice before my trip. But when I used them in restaurants and shops, the pleasant surprise of locals was palpable. It really doesn’t take much to show that you respect the country and people you are visiting.

Moreover, a small trickle can easily become a torrent. Dipping your toe into the waters of a language can awaken a deep interest later on. I had a really positive experience with Slovene, which piqued my interest more than a little. It sowed the seeds for a bit more exploration later on in my language learning journey.

Of course, that is the linguaphile’s perennial problem: just one more language on the growing list of dozens!

Wherever you go, whatever you do, remember that even the tiniest effort, the smallest vocabulary, can make a world of difference. Be like Kylie: take a little, and make it go as far as you possibly can.

Impostor syndrome can leave you feeling exposed and anxious. (Picture from freeimages.com)

Impostor syndrome? Prescribe yourself some polyglot community!

This week, I’m blogging from the grand hall of the Union Hotel in Ljubljana, Slovenia, as an excitable, kid-in-a-candy-store, first-time attendee of the annual Polyglot Conference. As expected, it’s been a bit of a language wonderland. I’ve been stuffed full of fresh ideas and inspiration for new projects.

But one concrete lesson it has taught me is this: impostor syndrome, that fear of not being good enough, is pretty much ubiquitous. However, more importantly, community is the antidote for it.

The sumptuous hall at the Grand Union Hotel, Ljubljana, venue for the Polyglot Conference 2018.

The sumptuous hall at the Grand Union Hotel, Ljubljana, venue for the Polyglot Conference 2018.

Now, I am naturally quite a shy person. A shy polyglot – what a frustrating thing to be. All those languages, and all that extra anxiety speaking to new people! Needless to say, it was quite a leap to book my conference ticket. But it was completely worth it, not least for the “people practice”, as I like to call it. An especially valuable observation has been a tonic for my confidence as a passionate polyglot.

Impostor alert

You see, imposter syndrome is BIG. We all feel it from time to time, even the most outwardly confident people. The phenomenon of internet celebrity plays its part – sometimes it’s hard to feel good enough when our heroes and idols appear to be such runaway successes.

It is that feeling that you are not on the same shelf as all those other impressive people. You’re a pretender to the throne, just blagging, a bit of a fraud. You can’t really speak all those languages. You know just a bit at best, and would crumble under scrutiny. In short, you aren’t really a fully-fledged polyglot – just a wannabe who can say a few words.

But let me tell you two things. Firstly, you are absolutely not alone in feeling this. Secondly, none of those fears are based in truth.

Look yourself in the face

One wonderful thing about the polyglot community is that it acts like a mirror. Be bold enough to look into it, and you see yourself reflected back multiple times. You realise the universality of your experience.

Put a few hundred language enthusiasts in a room, and it leaps out at you. We are all achieving, succeeding, thriving. In different ways, at different levels, yes. But nobody is a fraud. Revelling in a love of language learning is all it takes to be part of this club. There is no such thing as the fully-fledged, perfectly shaped polyglot.

Something quite sweet happened to me at the conference, which confirmed the truth of this.

Anti-social security

At the best of times, socialising with hundreds of unknown people is daunting. Very few of us are natural schmoozers. And so it was that I found myself, lunch plate in hand, hovering alone around groups of people that seemed so much better at small talk than I am.

Serendipitously, my forlorn wanderings were noticed. I was rescued by a kindly (and similarly floating) delegate, and naturally, we got chatting about our language journeys. It was an easy point of conversation; all delegates bore self-decorated name badges, including sticky flags representing our languages and proficiency.

A little push…

The thing was, my conference friend started to mention her experience of languages not on my name badge. Each time, I piped up: oh, I know a bit of that! And each time, the reply was the same – so where is your flag? Exasperated by my explanation that I just don’t know enough of it!, she dragged me to the table of flags and insisted that I add them.

Shortly afterwards, we found ourselves in the language room, an area with designated tables for a common ‘big’ languages to encourage speaking. Thanks to the extra flags, I ended up having conversations in old / discontinued / parked languages I never expected to use.

And guess what? I coped!

What’s more, nobody else was the perfect, native-fluency wizard I built them up to be. We simply shared the joy of language. I spoke to people who shared my fears, felt too shy to speak, but once prompted, just couldn’t stop communicating. Understanding each other’s common experiences, polyglot friends were patient, kind and encouraging. All it takes is a bit of self-belief to get going (and sometimes, a little push from someone who can spark that it in you).

You are good enough. Be sure of it.

Alphabet Texts

Textual Time Machine: Turning to the past for motivating target language texts

Gary Barlow and Margaret Thatcher accompanied me on my language learning this week. This surprising turn of events was thanks not to celebrity friendships and psychic messages, but rather a lucky stumble across a treasure trove of motivating target language texts.

In truth, I was getting a bit tired of language learning textbooks. Dialogues about holiday scenarios and sanitised snippets of everyday life in the target language country weren’t sparking my fire at all. As such, I was struggling a bit to motivate myself to read.

Then, I happened upon the Icelandic media archive timarit.is.

Tantalising texts: balancing subject and level

It is not possible to overestimate the benefits of hitting upon just the right texts to motivate your language learning. There are two strands to bear in mind on that search, sometimes complimentary, sometimes conflicting: subject and level.

Subject is important to inspire you to read in the first place. For example, I’m not interested in race car driving at all. So trying to plough through an Icelandic magazine article on Formula One is going to turn me right off. Music or travel, on the other hand, and I’ll be hooked in – especially if the text contains some new information that will be interesting or useful to me personally.

Level is simply the complexity of the language. But level interacts with subject, at least in terms of motivation. If the subject matter fascinates you, even a very difficult text will be one you gladly pore over. And if you are familiar with the subject matter, guessing new vocab from context is a hundred times easier and less frustrating.

Textual Time machine

Enter timarit.is. It is a grand, online collection of digitised newspaper and magazine media by the National and University Library of Iceland. This incredible service makes accessible publications that stretch back decades, fully readable and downloadable in PDF format.

Now, you might well chuckle at my first searches. A whole world of information at my fingertips, and my first selection was anything but highbrow. I grew up during the boyband explosion, so anything that whips up nostalgia around that will pique my interest. So that settles it: what had Iceland to say about Take That in years gone by?

That’s the trick though: don’t shy from your geekiest interests. Be shameless! Dig around and find some material to explore and reminisce over. The whole point is to connect, to personalise, to enmesh your learning into your life – even the cheesy parts. There certainly was no shortage of vintage cheese on offer here, like this cutting on “Gary Goldboy“:

Tímarit (mbl.is)

Gary Barlow, 1996 (timarit.is)

Sometimes the time machine can throw some real zingers of historical nuggets your way, too. I happened across the following (probably apocryphal) story of said popstar moaning about the cost of beer in Berlin in 1996. Celebrity gossip ages quite well, it seems – still served with an eye-roll and a heap of scepticism.

Beer outrage (timarit.is)

Beer outrage, 1996 (timarit.is)

Our history – their eyes

Popsters aside, I am also a bit of a news and current affairs junkie. When I get fed up of the current dirge (which happens a lot lately), I turn to the recent past. Exploring political history, especially what happened in your own lifetime, can be an enlightening exercise.

Trawling the pages of timarit.is reveals an unusual passion: reading about my own country through the eyes of another. I spent a good few hours typing in the names of figures associated with big political events, then seeing the Icelandic take on them through archived, authentic texts.

Callaghan or Thatcher? They decide today! (Timarit.is)

Callaghan or Thatcher? They decide today! 1979 (timarit.is)

The marvellous thing about timarit.is is the sheer depth of chronology. Facsimiles go back to the turn of the 20th Century. I leapt from Thatcher, to Wilson, to Attlee, reading excitedly each Icelandic take on a turning point in my country’s history. Fascinated is an understatement.

Target language culture?

But just a moment: British bands and British politicians? It’s all a bit Anglocentric, so far. However, you can use these as a springboard for tropes closer to your target language. After reading about Thatcher, for example, I searched for the phrase ‘first woman’ in Icelandic. Which other trail blazers would pop up? Well, I wasn’t disappointed. I learnt all about Iceland’s – and the world’s – first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.

Vigdís voted president! (Timarit.is)

Vigdís voted president! 1980 (timarit.is)

Of course, I have my own target language country fascination already: Eurovision. And there is no shortage of material there! I can’t explain how enthralled my inner nerd becomes when reading about the songs that I obsessed over for years as a superfan. Simply magical.

Eurovision Iceland 1992 (timarit.is)

Eurovision hopefuls for Iceland in 1992, feeling ‘well rehearsed’ (timarit.is). See here for the resulting live performance!

The fact that all this material is downloadable in PDF format is invaluable. I can simply load them onto my iPad (I use GoodReader for PDFs) and study them on the go.

Other languages

Timarit.is is a truly golden resource. As an Icelandic learner, I am beyond lucky to have open access to such a library. But where does this leave learners of other languages?

Sadly, while there are paid archives like the German http://www.genios.de/presse-archiv/, free materials like timarit.is are hard to come by. Perhaps Iceland’s size has made the task of collating and gaining rights for so much material a little easier than elsewhere. Still, even on paid-for sites there is some useful information.

The archive of German publication Spiegel is a good example. You can search editions back to 1946, although you must pay for the full issues. However, the cover thumbnails are intriguing in themselves as pieces of social history. They also contain a fair bit of useful target language in the form of headlines and subtitles.

Spanish news outlet ABC also offers its Hemeroteca (newspaper library) for information time travellers. I found this article on Spain’s first Eurovision victory, by Massiel back in 1968, particularly charming!

With a bit of Google search grafting, there should be something to find out there for all learners.

Archive sites are goldmines for language learners searching something a bit different to read. Do you have a favourite or recommended source of texts? Share them in the comments!