Hotspot for politics: inside the cupola of the German Reichstag in Berlin

The Power of Languages: Using Politics to Engage with Your Target Language

Politics isn’t a dirty word! Well, it needn’t be. It might actually be a gateway to both better target language skills, and greater engagement in your target language culture.

I’ve written previously about the passive benefits learners of highly visible political language. The concise, snappy nature of sloganism is just perfect for bite-sized language lessons. But language itself is a potent tool capable of conveying ideas, forging connections, and instigating change. In the realm of politics, language serves as a vehicle to raise awareness, mobilise communities, and advocate for transformative action.

And harnessing that power is an excellent way to participate directly with your target language culture.

Finding a Way In

To get started turning politics into a learning strategy, reaching out to political or activist organisations in your target language countries is an effective first approach. This not only deepens your understanding of the political landscape in those nations, but also allows you to actively contribute to the fight for a better future on your terms.

Here are some valuable resources to kickstart your journey, each of which are mineable for links to your particular country of interest:

  • Action Network: Discover and join political and activist organisations in your target language country. []
  • Initiate and sign petitions on crucial issues that resonate with you. []
  • Global Citizen: Take action on global challenges such as poverty, climate change, and human rights. []
  • Engage in political activism by contacting elected officials and supporting political campaigns. []
  • Join the fight against climate change by mobilizing individuals to take meaningful action. []

Politics and Social Media

Social media platforms also offer excellent opportunities to connect with political or activist organisations in your target language country. Following political accounts – for instance, Senterpartiet in Norway, or Sweden’s SV – can equip you with the vocabulary and structures you need to engage.

It’s also helpful to follow a range of organisations, including those espousing views that might not necessarily overlap with your own. Preparing yourself for both sides of a debate is never a bad idea.

Here are a few steps you can take:

  1. Research: Identify organisations or groups that align with your political interests and goals. Explore their online presence, including their websites and social media profiles, to gain insights into their mission, activities, and values.

  2. Follow and Engage: Follow the organisations’ social media accounts on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or LinkedIn. Stay updated on their initiatives, campaigns, and events. Engage with their posts by liking, commenting, and sharing to show your support and connect with like-minded individuals.

  3. Direct Messaging: Some organisations may provide contact information or allow direct messaging through their social media profiles. Consider reaching out to express your interest in getting active, ask questions, or seek more information about their work. Be concise, polite, and explain your language learning journey and enthusiasm for their cause.

  4. Hashtags and Communities: Utilise relevant hashtags and join online communities or groups dedicated to political activism or social causes in your target language country. Participate in discussions, share your insights, and connect with individuals who share your passion.

  5. Online Events and Webinars: Many organisations host online events, webinars, or live streams to share knowledge, discuss pressing issues, and engage their audience. Attend these events and actively participate by asking questions or sharing your perspectives. This allows you to connect with both the organisation and fellow participants.

By leveraging social media platforms, you can broaden your network, stay informed, and actively engage with political or activist organisations in your target language country. This digital connection provides a gateway to collaborate, learn, and contribute to meaningful change.

Getting Involved

Once you’ve established contact with political or activist organisations, whether through social media or other means, you can explore various avenues to contribute. Volunteer your time, make donations, or even consider running for a position. By actively participating, you’ll utilise your language skills to make a tangible impact.

Here are a couple of additional tips for connecting with political or activist organisations in your target language country:

  • Respect the culture: When communicating in another language, it’s vital to show respect for the culture and language of the individuals involved. Use appropriate language forms and be mindful of cultural sensitivities.
  • Persevere: Finding the right organisation for you may require some time and effort. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t immediately find the perfect fit. Remain persistent, continue your search, and you’ll eventually discover an organisation that aligns with your passions.

With these suggestions, I hope you’re inspired to use and improve your language skills by exploring the politics of your target language countries. Let your linguistic abilities be a force for positive change!

Scotland's Census 2022 - now including Gaelic as a separate question.

Operationalising Gaelic : Census Questions As A Political Leg-Up

It’s census time in Scotland! Letter are dropping through letterboxes across the land, inviting citizens to submit their details for the national record. And there’s bit of a buzz about a certain question. Gaelic learners are chomping at the bit to answer it.

All respondents will be self-reporting their knowledge of the language across the four skills. It’s a bit of a blunt instrument, admittedly, leaving aside issues of level and competence. But its inclusion carries a lot of significance for the community of speakers and learners. So much so, that there’s been a concerted Tick the Box! drive to encourage skills reporting.

Scotland's Census 2022 and the very welcome Gaelic question!

Scotland’s Census 2022 and the very welcome Gaelic question!

So what is so encouraging about a simple language skills question?

Well, a census is never simply a neutral fact-finding mission. The very act of asking a question about some thing has a power beyond simple information-gathering. It lends political shape and weight to the item under study. Defining something as worthy of counting – and, by extension, of governance – affords it a life of its own, out of the shadows. There’s a Foucauldian underside to that, of course. Shadier concerns have used census-taking to carve up the world better to divide and subjugate it. But, turned on its head, mindful question design can be a tool to shine a light on groups that need support.

Canvassing Gaelic as a special, separate skill anchors it to the ‘set of things that are relevant to Scottishness’ in the public mind, as well as respecting the existence of speakers and learners in Scottish society. As language planners try to shore up and reverse the retreat of Gaelic from public life in Scotland, operationalising the language like this, so publicly, helps to pull it back into general consciousness.

And importantly, this plays out amongst census respondents who might otherwise never notice the presence of the language in everyday discourse.

Shoring Up Gaelic Support

Otherwise, how the census question plays out positively on a wider scale is tied to the eventual number-crunching. For a start, self-reporting second-language speakers add to the numbers of existing native Gaels. After disappointing numbers in 2011, this, we all hope, will give a much sturdier picture of a language in revival (fingers crossed). Whatever part this plays in the debate on native versus neo-Gaelic, a growing community must surely be a good sign.

And numbers matter. They are why, amongst other things, it is far from futile to add to Duolingo’s Ukrainian learner tally right now. Large numbers signify support. And as cynical a view of governance as it may seem, pressure from a supportive public garners actions and resources from power.

A sufficient groundswell can trigger political initiatives such as a recent call for more Gaelic at the Scottish Parliament, for example. Likewise, it can get a ball rolling in terms of everyday, out-and-about visibility. Tesco’s recent promotion of the language to star position on Stornoway store signs is a great example. None of this happens without the prompting of public interest, or the proof that stats provide for it.

In that spirit, I very proudly self-reported my Gàidhlig skills this week. And I hope many thousands of others will be doing the same.

The flag of Ukraine flying in the wind. Image by

Small Gestures, Great Cause : Ukraine and Cultural Solidarity

Like many, I’m finding it hard to think about anything but the appalling invasion of Ukraine right now.

It’s a plight that is breaking countless hearts, prompting the universal question what can we do to help? Not everyone is able to attend a rally. Many don’t have the means to donate funds.

But something sad I’ve noticed around #langtwt this week is the number of people questioning the little gestures, those involving cultural exploration and language learning. Many (including me) felt compelled to express solidarity by starting, or returning to, the Duolingo Ukrainian course, for example.

To language lovers, it feels like instinctual solidarity. But naturally, it triggers self-doubt over tokenism and futility.

On the face of it, yes, it feels achingly inadequate in terms of stopping bombs and bullets.

But amidst all the helplessness, anything that creates solidarity and increases understanding is worth pursuing. And, more importantly, so is anything that counters Putin’s faulty reasoning on the existence of a unique, authentic Ukrainian statehood and right to exist as a distinct cultural entity.

Because those numbers add up. On the first day after the invasion, course enrolment numbers leapt by thousands. They continue to rise.

In an age of algorithms boosting visibility, those extra thousands mean something. They pay a respect, through numbers, to the identity – and right to existence and self-determination – of that group.

So it may feel like a tiny thing. But those little acts of validation do carry weight.

For sure, the grander gestures are important. Donate, if you are able. Make your voice heard by attending rallies. Write to your local representatives to encourage action.

But don’t discount those small acts, either.

A policeman watches a protest march by. Image from

The Language Doth Protest Too Much? Learning from Conflict

We live in contested times. If one form of language best typifies that fact, it is the language of protest. 

It was a point driven home this week, with coverage of anti-Macron demonstrations in France all over the international news. La jeunesse emmerde le front vaccinal screamed the posters, turning on its head Macron’s own promise to (in more delicate terms) pee off the vaccine-hesitant.

Reading Between the Protest Lines

Regardless of whether we agree with the sentiment behind the cardboard, protest placards like these are valuable sources of target language in context. They have much in common with political campaign literature in this way. Both are equally handy authentic resources in miniature for the impartial language-learning observer. Namely, they’re short, snappy and contain very condensed vocabulary and grammar examples. As an added bonus, they provide very up-to-date and topical material for conversation.

Not to shy away from another side-benefit, though, their non-sanitised style is rather useful in another way. Popular protest slogans, like the above example shows, consist of highly colloquial, often profane, everyday language. As gritty as it is, it’s not a bad idea to be familiar with it. After all, learning only polite French is really learning half a language. Incidentally, If you feel the need to brush up on that first, take a look at the juvenilely tittersome Dirty French and Beyond Merde!

The Last Laugh?

After all is said and done, politics can be a dirty business, and one that all too easily sucks us into a void of despair. After de-politicising my social media streams, I try to keep a level-headed distance from adversarial politics now. Viewing it as a resource, rather than a constant rematch between tribes, makes it a lot more fun as a language learner.

That said, if you find your disagreement a heavy burden to bear, learning from protest placards is a way to have the last laugh. It’s the ultimate in turning a negative into a positive.

On that note, thank you, protesters: the word emmerder is now firmly in my Anki notes!

Hotspot for politics: inside the cupola of the German Reichstag in Berlin

Hot Politics: cooking up language learning opportunities from election posters

It’s European Parliament election time all over the European Union – even, perhaps, in the UK after recent developments – which means that Europe is awash with slogans and soundbites again. And politics, not always a dirty word, can be great for linguists.

Political sloganism is a tightly-packed linguistic format that lends itself well to brains looking for new vocabulary and structures. As you walk through the placard-plastered streets of Berlin, Paris, Madrid and other European towns and cities, there is much to learn from the language used on all sides and across all arguments.

Billboards have blossomed over Berlin in recent weeks, illustrating the point nicely. I spent last weekend walking around the very sunny German capital, which right now serves up rich pickings for linguistically-minded politicos (or politically minded linguisticos?). A selection of them below give a taste of how voter-targeted, snappy political discourse can double as excellent source material for the language learner. *

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Europe remains our future”

Putting politics to good use

So why is this kind of language so useful?

Language microbites

For one thing, the language of political campaigning is satisfyingly bite-sized and concise. It often includes colloquialisms and phrasing that you can easily reuse in your own speech.

One way to view them is as micro-stimuli for vocabulary learning. They contain just enough content to provide new material to the learner, but are short enough not to overwhelm. That makes them perfect for language learning on the go (especially with Google Translate and Wiktionary handy to look up new words, and Anki ready to add them to your personal lexical bank). Phone in hand, you can positively milk those streets for vocab.

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Learn from people instead of just from books”

Opinion boosters

What’s more, political language is particularly rich in opinion-formulating language. You can synthesise this into your repertoire to spice up your own target-language conversations. Political slogans aim to get quickly to the point. By integrating the same kind of structures into your own speech, you can add flow to your speaking without getting bogged down in over-complex sentence construction.

In fact, that formulation of to-the-point, persuasive language still draws on ancient tricks of the political trade: rhetoric. This ancient art of arguing the case still has a lot to teach foreign language wordsmiths, and you can pick up plenty of tips from street sign politics.

If you can understand Norwegian, a recent episode of the ever excellent language podcast Språkteigen unpacks the political rhetoric behind a recent speech by Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General and former Norwegian PM. Well worth a listen!

Politics on the street: DGB poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: DGB poster in Berlin, “Worked a whole life long – that deserves respect!”

Talking points

For the same reason, poster text can act as a great, opinion-triggering stimulus for speaking with language learning peers or teachers. Do you agree with the sentiment? Why (not)? Truly, the printed messages around us cover all sides of political discourse. Let them prompt you to respond with your own, authentic reactions and counter-opinions.

Politics on the street: Die Grünen poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: Die Grünen poster in Berlin, “Only a social Europe is a strong Europe.”

Zeitgeist barometers

Finally, political campaign slogans also offer a unique snapshot of the current cultural landscape of your target language country. The hot topics of the day can be quite different from those in the world back home. Studying campaign material on the street can help you to read the Zeitgeist of your countries and cultures of interest.

Likewise, learning from material in the now is also a great way to bring your vocabulary up-to-date (especially if you used a rather old text to learn the basics from!).

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Let’s not leave digitalisation to the rest of the world.”


Election watch

All kinds of elections are happening all the time across our target language countries. Be in the watch-out for campaigns and the language they engender. You don’t even need to travel to far-off streets to get your fix, either. Websites and social media feeds can be a goldmine of polemical vocabulary. Very handy for those quiet periods between elections, too!

Not sure what to look out for online? Wikipedia collates useful political party lists for most countries. Here are a few to get you started:

*I should add that the sample of placards I photographed is not meant to imply any political bias – just the route I happened to walk along on that sunny day in Berlin!

The Houses of Parliament, the seat of British politics

Politics is good for you (and your language learning!)

We’ve all had enough of politics, right? Well, a bit of it might be good for you, if you’re learning a foreign language.

One of the biggest advantages of following politics in your target language is not just in new vocabulary learnt. It’s about the polemic – the skill of explaining and arguing a point. The skill of using language for argument and persuasion – rhetoric – is fundamental if you’re preparing for spoken exams that require you to discuss an issue, for example.

In fact, it’s a vital skill even if you’re not aiming for A-level oral exam stardom. Learning a language truly to communicate means being able to discuss, and not simply state facts. And if politics is anything, it’s an arena for (sometimes very heated) discussion. Introducing some politics into your language learning can provide a communicative dynamic that other topics struggle to ignite.

A new picture – or the wider picture?

So with so much politics about these days, why should we go after even more? Well, if you’re sick of politics in your own country, overseas political scuffles can be a welcome distraction. On the other hand, you can gain a fuller picture of your home country issues by following how they are perceived abroad. It’s truly fascinating as a British learner to see how political parties in other countries approach topics like Brexit. You can gain a unique perspective on your own country that the home media will never provide.

Following overseas political developments pays off in other ways, too. Through widening your own political lens, you appreciate much more the interconnectedness of the world. As linguists, we’re already great at seeing beyond borders. But bringing an explicitly political slant into your learning really plugs you into this global aspect of humanity.

Where to start

As with all authentic materials, the best place to start is personal interest. There’s little fun in only following a kind of politics that you don’t subscribe to in your home country. So begin with the political party / parties you support, and find their analogues in the target language country.

Doing this is as simple as googling “political parties in [your target language country here]”. You should get plenty of results, with Wikipedia articles being amongst the most useful. The following table from Wikipedia, for example, shows not only the current parliamentary parties in Norway, but also lists their ideologies. Great for matching your own politics to a target language party!

Politics in Norway - parliamentary parties listed on Wikipedia

Politics in Norway – parliamentary parties listed on Wikipedia

Once you’ve found a party / parties you’re have an interest in, take to social media to find out more. Major parties will invariably have a Facebook and Twitter account to follow. Their websites may also have blogs or news feeds, which you can add to your news reader if you have one (Feedly is quite good).

It’s always a good idea to follow target language accounts in your daily social media feeds. For one thing, it means that you’ll regularly be exposed to snippets of language, even when you’re not in ‘learning mode’. It helps to maintain a degree of language immersion in your day-to-day, which ultimately will lead to greater fluency.

Politics : the perfect package for new language

Once subscribed, the format of the language can be ideal for learning. Political language on social media is packaged perfectly for this purpose – possibly for all the wrong reasons! For one thing, it regularly consists of largely superficial soundbites. However, these represent concise, condensed nuggets of vocabulary and structure, and can be very easy to memorise. Consequently, you can work them into your own conversations or discussions in the language without too much effort.

Additionally, the format of some social media platforms is perfect for presenting language to learners. Twitter, with its character limit, forces the author to make snappy, impactful arguments in just a few words. Logical argument and rhetoric can often become keener under these circumstances, when the ‘fluff’ is pared down.

Twitter feed of the German SPD

Twitter feed of the German SPD

There is, of course, the danger of the ‘filter bubble’ or ‘echo chamber’. If you only follow parties you broadly agree with, you will lack a challenge to your argument. If you can stomach it – and are a real sucker for political punishment – it can be useful to follow some opponent organisations too.

Alternatively, to supplement all this you can also follow political news on target language news sites. In German, for example, I find that and the Frankfurter Allgemeine sites are superb for political news and commentary. Their advantage is (at least in theory) being non-partisan with a more balanced overview. The disadvantage is that they contain much weightier, wordier texts – a far cry from the soundbites and slogans of political feeds.

Control the flow and reap the benefits

As with all things, moderation is important. I’ve written an earlier post on the importance of detoxifying your social media feeds. Politics can be frustrating and exhausting to follow. But if you make it work for you as a linguist, it can be a real boon to your language (and wider) learning.

Which language do you choose out of 7,000 in the world?

Language choice: finding your Wonderland

With nearly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, how do you choose which one(s) to study? It’s a question I often hear, but one I don’t really think about much. For me, language learning has always been an end in itself, first and foremost. I love dabbling, exploring, playing around with new languages.

But for someone new to the linguaphile world, it’s an understandable question. Can there be some logical approach to choosing a language to learn, all things being equal?

Number of native speakers

The most obvious practical consideration is language use; after all, language’s primary function is communcation, right? Just how much of the world will open up to you if you learn a language?

Ten of the world’s languages have over 100 million native speakers: in order, Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese and Lahnda (Western Panjabi). The polyglossically-minded might try to tackle all ten. This would grant you linguistic access to a staggering three-and-a-half billion of the world’s population. You could be transported to a random, populated spot of our world of 7.4 billion people, and have a nearly 50% chance of being able to speak the language!

Building bridges

However, random transportation isn’t really a thing. And a glance down that country list shows how far-flung and distantly distributed all these languages are across the map. Chances are, you don’t live next door to many of them.

Here, then, comes the just-over-the-fence / just-across-the-pond option. It’s the reason why so many British schoolchildren grow up learning French, German or Spanish. Pick a close neighbour, and learn about them – what better way to build bridges? (And boy, has there been a better time to build bridges?)

Being on the doorstep, there’s not only a ready supply of teachers and access to resources, but the chance to travel not too far to practise your skills. France is likely to be one of the first foreign countries British students set foot in. Spain is a short flight away and a hugely popular holiday destination for British families. In some parts of England, you can pick up Welsh language TV. There’s a lot to be said for learning a neighbouring language!

Then again, bridge-building does require a soupçon of warmth and goodwill towards neighbours, and this can sometimes seem in short supply.

The economy, stupid

You could be more mercenary, and decide that you’re going for the powerful countries. Cynically speaking, money is power these days, so you’ll looking at the languages of the top ten countries by GDP. That gives you English, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, Hindi (along with India’s other languages), Italian, Portuguese and Korean. Learn one of those, and you have the language skills to land a job in a country that’s doing pretty well for itself.

The trouble is, global politics changes so quickly. Devote ten years to learning English, and you might find that China has become the new superpower. Stick all your eggs in a German basket, and you might find that Poland has become the European economic powerhouse in a decade or two. Picking a language on its prospects as a world business language can seem a little like playing roulette.

Language as cultural key

Moreover, I’m not a cynic. There’s far more to life than money, and there’s even more to a country than GDP. Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on exactly why a country or culture holds a certain fascination for you.

The reasons could be entirely romantic; ever since I was a kid, I’ve been intrigued by Nordic culture. I admit that has less to do with reality, and more to do with snow-and-ice depictions of reindeer, Norse gods and Vikings. The release of Disney’s Frozen did nothing to cure my Nordic romanticism. But realistic or not, therein lies the attraction for me, and it was the hook that got me into learning Norwegian and Icelandic.

There’s no shame in letting imagination lead your language choices. You’ll be more engaged, and greater engagement helps you to access that state of flow in which learning can (sometimes) feel effortless. If you can handle the disillusionment when your imagined wonderland turns out to be quite everyday (Norway isn’t full of Vikings, disappointingly), then you might also spark a lifelong love affair with the your target language culture.

Language as Heritage

Linked to these romantic ideas, but closer to home, we have heritage reasons for language choice. Again, motivation is likely to be high with this rationale – there’s the feeling that you can get close to your roots, your ancestors, your soul, when learning a language with regional links to your family.

Barely 50,000 people speak Scottish Gaelic as a first language today, but all the economics and utility in the world won’t take the shine off learning it if you know your forebears may have used it.  And sometimes, the passion can lead to rebirth, as seen in the re-blossoming of Welsh, and the beginning of a Cornish language revival.


Still can’t decide? Well, maybe you don’t have to. You could take a broader brush, and study language in general.

A good way to get a general feel for a lot of languages is to study their reconstructed development from proto-language. There is something awe-inspiring about reading how our ancestors (probably) spoke. You can get a sense of the depth of history when you see how a word you use every day developed from a root that emerged thousands of years ago.

There are some excellent books on Indo-European, for example, which go into great detail about vocabulary and grammar:

Others, like Routledge’s The Indo-European Languages, or the even more specific The Germanic Languages, give snapshots of the modern members of the language family, while highlighting their relationships to each other. Either way, you’ll get a fascinating glimpse into how language, and culture, spread and diversify. Seeing links between languages can also help strengthen your understanding of how a given, single one works.

As for me…

At school I learnt French and German, then German and Spanish at university (bridge-building and economics, you might think). But then – I must admit – practical, dry, real-world reasoning went out of the window. Language is the whole point now – there’s doesn’t need to be a reason beyond because I like it. I’m just drawn to particular countries and cultures, and this is what guides my choices.

Often, it’s down to which places are cheapest to travel to – Polish is definitely attractive at the moment! Other times, you’ll be bewitched, and keep going back despite the expense (thanks, Norway and Iceland). I love travelling, being abroad, trying to communicate and making friends in a foreign language. And I’ll grab every opportunity I can to do that!

Find your Norway / Iceland / Poland / Wonderland and pursue it. All the practical reasons in the world won’t trump passion.

Change may be accelerated by societal pressures.

Change, society and the language learner

Language never stands still. As learners, we study a moving target. The only constant is change.

It’s something that hits you when you learn from old textbooks. Many old, forgotten language courses still have mileage in them, especially if you like learning the nuts and bolts of grammar early on.  You do have to keep one eye on the relevancy of the language learnt, though.

For instance, I’ve learnt a lot over the last couple of months from a Teach Yourself Polish edition that was originally published in 1948. It’s no longer available in print, but it really suits my learning style; I’ve not found a gentler, clearer introduction to Polish grammar in anything newer.

Language reflects social change

Saying that, the world, and the vocabulary that reflects it, have changed a lot since 1948. I won’t find the Polish for computer or mobile phone in there, for example. Neither will I be able to talk about my job (developing language learning software). I can’t even talk about recent political events (what’s the Polish for Brexit or fake news?).

These sweeping and rapid changes tend to affect the content words of a language. Generally speaking, the function words – those nuts and bolts like articles, conjunctions and pronouns – are slower to change. It has taken centuries, for example, for English to whittle down the pronouns ‘thou’ and ‘ye’ to a single ‘you’.

Brave new world

However, we live in times that see status quo smashed and long-held tendencies bucked. One explanation for this may be the increasing speed of information flow through society. Social media facilitates this flow,  catalysing societal change; language, mirroring society, reveals these changes in an ever quicker pace of change.

Recent developments in Sweden, and more recently, Norway, illustrate this society-language two-step nicely. With the emergence of new gender categories such as trans and non-binary, language was left wanting. Swedish han (he) and hon (she) no longer reflected the reality many want to talk about. Broad support to plug this gap led to the adoption of a new, gender-neutral pronoun, hen. The Swedish Academy finally recognised the word in its official word list in 2015. Today, Norway’s Labour Party leads calls for the same in Norwegian, continuing a pace of language change that does not even leave function words untouched.

It’s worth noting that there is nothing truly new about gender neutrality in language. Languages like Finnish and Turkish have long lacked a marker for gender in the equivalent of he/she. The difference is that their systems, presumably, evolved over millennia of language change; Swedish and Norwegian hen have emerged in just a few years, testimony to this new world of rapid change.

Stay ahead of change

So how can the language learner cope in this world? Well, sweeping functional changes are still rare in language, despite the hen example. Changes in usage and convention can happen from generation to generation, like shifts in the Swedish use of ‘you’. Still, these changes won’t make you unintelligible (and nothing a few days in the country won’t cure!).

Otherwise, there are a few tactics you can keep in mind to protect your language skills from becoming outdated.

Be on the lookout

It is important to arm yourself with cultural awareness when using slightly older materials. With old texts, bear in mind that the political world may have shifted; my 1948 Polish course, for example, is littered with military terms, doubtlessly useful to friends and relatives of Polish service personnel settled in the UK post-war. Less useful to me, I’m aware of the vocab I can probably ignore for now.

The names of countries may even have changed; pre-1989 German materials are historical documents in themselves, attesting to a still divided country. The terms for languages themselves may be different; texts on Serbo-Croat for learning the language of Yugoslavia have been swept away in favour of separate texts on the Serbian and Croatian of now independent countries.

Actively build vocabulary

Be aware of how the world has changed; actively seek to plug gaps your learning resources. Google Translate is being updated constantly, so great for finding single terms on modern life. Use tech / computer / lifestyle magazines in the target language to mine for new terms (Readly is a useful subscription service featuring many foreign titles).

Keeping ahead of language change with Google Translate

Keeping ahead of change with Google Translate

Read all about it

Read current affairs in your target language as widely as possible. Online news is (generally) a cost-free way of doing this. Here is a nice list of foreign language outlets to start with. Expose yourself constantly to the topics of the day, and note any new terms for learning. I use Evernote and Anki for adding terms to my vocab bank.

Intimidated by advanced news texts as a beginner? Some media outlets cater for learners of the language. German learners might like to try this podcast by Deutsche Welle, featuring the news of the day in deliberately slow, uncomplicated German. A similar service for Spanish learners is provided by

Embrace it

Finally, don’t see language change as a hindrance. Rather, be intrigued by it, and strive to follow developments in your target language country. Learning how a language has changed / is changing can increase your familiarity with both the language and the society it belongs to.

It illustrates perfectly how language should never be studied in isolation on a textbook page, but ‘in the wild’ as a living, breathing creature.

Thanks again to the brilliant NRK radio programme Språkteigen, who recently ran the story of ‘hen’ in Norway, and provided the inspiration for this post!