Polyglotised Products

I keep coming across what you might call polyglotised products lately. You know the kind of thing: emblazoned with motivational or humorous snippets in a number of languages, usually achingly corny and twee, and all too often containing a few errors to create some associated unintended comedy. From the welcome to… artwork at airports to that multilingual Christmas cross-stitch that comes out once a year, you can find multilingual cheesiness in all sorts of places.

As naff as they can be, there is something snugly positive about these chintzy embellishments. For the wistful polyglots, they’re a nod to the world beyond. For the philosophical, they acknowledge that despite language differences, humans tend to express the same kinds of everyday thoughts the world over. And for the rest of us, they’re just plain fun. I think they deserve to be celebrated whenever we see them in our otherwise blandly monolingual societies.

Corny polyglot fun

I spotted a corker of one recently: a polyglot ashtray, sitting incongruously outside a café pub in the city centre. It’s all the sweeter for the fact that it looks homemade, and well-loved, judging by the wear around the edges. There’s that folk irony there too, a hint of sarcasm, with the – ahem – hilarious decision to adorn an ashtray with “I will quit tomorrow”. Firmly in the “my other car’s a Lamborghini” tradition. Just glorious.

In any case, these things bring a dash of light-hearted silliness to a sometimes dark world, not to mention a smile to the face of those that understand a snatch of their target language in them.

Three polyglot cheers for cheese!

Have you come across any nice specimens on your travels? What are your favourites? Let us know in the comments!

A brick wall, doing what brick walls do best - offering resistance! Image from freeimages.com

Cross-Language Tactics Resistance : Doing What Works – Everywhere

Sometimes, we know what’s best for us. But we still don’t do it. It’s a frustrating matter of resistance.

I notice this a lot cross-language. It’s that realisation that I’ve had great successes in some learning projects, but fail to carry over what I did right to another.

I think the issue can be that I tend to ‘bubble off’ a new language learning project into its own mental microcosm. And that’s quite necessary, of course; it helps maintain separation, limit interference and keep me sane as a polyglot learner.

But it also sets up brick walls that make it hard to transfer good practices as an automatic habit.

The Great Greek-Polish Divide…

I’ve been active with Greek and Polish concurrently since the first 2020 lockdowns (Polish a lot longer as a continuous projectGreek a resumption project from years back). However, with pretty much the same lesson-per-week pace, I feel conversationally fluent in Greek, but perennially clumsy in Polish. I gab away happily with my Greek tutor about all manner of nonsense. Polish, on the other hand, can still feel like wading through ungrammatical, uncolloquial treacle.

I’m tempted to put it down to the fact that Greek is, perhaps, simply an easier language to learn than Polish. Taking an external, objective measure, though, this doesn’t seem to be an excuse to let me off the hook. The FSI, in its difficulty ranking for learners, classes Greek and Polish both as Level III, or hard languages.

So what am I doing so differently?

It is mostly down to my different attitude towards learning materials in the two languages. For Polish, I try to use serious textbooks. For reading material, I aim for the news.

Now, I barely read the news in Greek; I follow TV chefs on Instagram instead (and pop culture is the healthiest of all guilty pleasures for language learners, of course). I don’t spend a lot of time with textbooks or grammars, either. Rather, I just do a few minutes of Glossika and Duolingo every day. Glossika in particular has been transformative; just blasting my brain repeatedly with everyday sentence structure has produced amazing results.

Similar “brief blast” treatment comes in the form of Instagram accounts which post short, snappy quotes in Greek. It’s just enough to activate the Greek brain and impart a couple of new words without the overload of hefty reading. X and Y are recommended for fellow learners.

Chat Habits

The nature of my chat – or what I want to chat about – differs similarly. In Polish, I started out with my head stuck in serious discussion mode. I feel I should be talking about weighty, lofty matters. Where that idea comes from, I do not know; but I do know that it hobbles my fluency, much as a bunch of ‘should do’ norms stop us from reading what makes us happy in the target language.

In Greek, my conversation classes are usually without formal structure, and I ramble quite happily about some very low-brow stuff indeed. Maybe it’s because Greek was a revival project under lockdown, so the stakes felt lower. I believe we all develop a different persona for each of our target languages, and Greek Rich is certainly a lot more laid back.

But even looking beyond Greek, there are healthy chat habits I have in other languages that I need to carry over to Polish. In Gaelic, for example, I have a regular, lively get-together with fellow local learners, albeit, temporarily, a Zoom meet rather than our pre-pandemic pub chat. I still don’t have a huge vocabulary, but I use what I have, and it works. Our ‘no English’ rule is fantastic practice for flexible thinking as a fledgling A2 speaker, forcing us to express what we want to say in alternative, economical ways. By contrast, in Polish, I probably tried to learn too many isolated vocabulary items too soon. A case of trying too hard, too soon; I’m spoilt for choice and a worse speaker for it.

Resistance Busting

Good news for me: I am redressing the balance between my Greek and Polish now.

Thanks to some extra group classes laid on by my Polish tutor, I’m getting more of that informal, friendly chat that bolstered my Greek so much. I’ve discovered cheesy soap Pierwsza miłość (first love), which is filling my Polish ventricles with light-hearted nonsense. I’ve cut back on going too hard, too serious with the dreaded news. And I’ve started to add a few minutes of Polish Glossika to my daily tactics (even though it feels, oddly, like I’m cheating on my Greek there).

Other remedies are harder to source unless someone points them out, of course. For instance, I’m still looking for fun and snappy Polish quote accounts to follow (any recommendations welcome!). And I’d still love a shot in the arm for my Polish pop culture socials generally.

But, happily, I’m turning the tide. Polish is a language I care about very much; it’s waiting for me to break that resistance and benefit from the techniques my other languages have enjoyed for so long.

Which of your languages seem resistant to the success you’ve enjoyed with others? And how do you try and overcome that? Let us know in the comments!

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

New Book, New Language

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

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

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

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

Assimil's Kroatisch ohne Mühe

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

Language book whys and wherefores

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

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

Secondly, another language? Really?

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

A Eurovision head start

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

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

Multilingual World : Playing Our Part

Multilingualism is still alive! At least that’s the message we got loud and clear from Eurovision this weekend, with four of the top five songs in a language other than English.

Yes: thankfully, the world (well, Europe, at least) isn’t sleepwalking into an anglophone beige. It’s a welcome theme that ran through the whole week. A lot of it came from the Eurovision immersion, naturally. I spent a good chunk of time devouring home-spun news articles from my favourite countries and artists in the lead-up to Saturday’s final. I just love getting other takes on my favourite show, and most of the best ones aren’t in English.

But the whole jamboree (very appropriately) also coincided with the Polyglot Gathering. I spent a few great hours chatting and listening to talks online, switching from room to room, language to language, using everything but English. Proper multilingual merry-go-round stuff. The fun of it all got me thinking about how to de-anglify my life a little bit more.

Little Multilingual Things

One of the easiest, lowest-outlay, little things  we can do, in order to dent the preponderance of English online, is produce more multilingual content ourselves. I follow some lovely folk on Twitter who regularly switch between a number of languages for status updates.

Side note: I realise the irony of me writing this blog in English right now. Ahem.

Anyway, these things are sometimes easier said than done. Namely, there are two hurdles to getting starting ab initio here:

  1. A fear of alienating those followers who don’t understand the language of choice
  2. A fear of making mistakes and looking silly (“you’re not a real polyglot, you fraud!”)

It’s easy to deal with the first quibble. Most platforms have a translation feature now, so an unfamiliar language is understandable with a single click. Twitter is great for this – I use the ‘translate tweet’ option so often that I completely take it for granted .

The second problem is a little harder to tackle, as it comes from a very human – and probably ubiquitous – place of wobbly self-confidence. But going back to the Polyglot Conference, it helps to remember how utterly supportive our language learning community is. I sat in a room for fluent Germanists on Thursday, and the acceptance of all levels of fluency really warmed the cockles of my heart. I’m sometimes one to clam up when I think my mistakes will show – especially with my stronger languages, for some reason – but I’ve never felt more at ease. It reminds me that polyglotism isn’t some lofty refuge of geniuses, but something we can all aspire to.

Making the Effort

In short, there are really no serious obstacles to extending this wonderful world where Italian, French and Ukrainian can take their places quite naturally next to the anglophonic behemoth. I’ll be making more of an effort to do just that over the coming weeks.

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

Language and Music : A Double Whammy Treat This Week

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

It’s Eurovision Week!

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

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

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

The Polyglot Gathering (Online)

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

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

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

In Other Language News…

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

Triangulation - a polyglot approach to language learning. Image by Nils Thingvall, FreeImages.com

Everyday Triangulation : Three Sides to Every Language Story

A study colleague popped up in our group forum this week, sharing an interesting resource. It was a set of quiz flashcards for the current term’s Swahili vocabulary. But it came with a triangulation twist. It was a Swahili-Spanish set, rather than Swahili-English.

Triangulation – learning one of your foreign languages through another, rather than your first – is nothing new, of course. A beloved technique of polyglotters, it can be an easy, quick-win strategy to learn and maintain / strengthen skills at the same time. Many readily available resources support it, too. Both Duolingo and Glossika have options for learning via a different base language.

The assumption is often that it works best with quite different language pairs, like my colleague’s Swahili-Spanish set. There is certainly a logic to this, as some might expect possible counter-interference with closely related languages. I’ve certainly got some good use out of Langenscheidt’s Polish course for German speakers (a slightly more updated version of my ancient copy is available here!).

Close Triangulation

That said, triangulating with close language pairs does come with a unique advantage. Namely, it shines a bright light on false friends and misleading pairs, which might otherwise remain invisible if English is the medium to learn both.

Take Norwegian and Icelandic, for example. There is an apparent cognate in Icelandic líka and Norwegian like. However, they mean different things: also and alike respectively. If you learn both languages via English, the two will never come into contact with other (at least in your mind), and that discrepancy will remain in the dark. Well, at least until you confuse them in conversation with a native speaker (yes: guilty!).

However, if you create a set of learning resources in Icelandic and Norwegian that makes explicit this (dis)connection, you have a head start.

The same happens with words that are cognates, but slightly overlap in usage. For instance, Icelandic and Norwegian have the cognates sem and som. These can both be used as relative pronouns (the dog that I saw, the doctor that treated me and so on). However, Norwegian som can also be used for the comparing like, as in noen som ham (someone like him). In Icelandic, that doesn’t work at all. Instead, you have to use the term eins og, giving us einhvern eins og hann for the same phrase. It’s exceptionally tricky to learn that distinction if you learn Icelandic and Norwegian through English, but separately from each other.

Triangulating Existing Resources

Great, if you are just starting out, you might say. But what if you are already halfway down the road? By the time I realised the benefit of triangulating Iceland and Norwegian, I already had a ton of English-based Anki flashcards in separate decks for each one. Starting a third set for Icelandic-Norwegian was a less than fun prospect. It felt like treading the same ground all over again.

Tech tools to the rescue, though. There are some clever tricks you can play with your existing data sets to create triangulated versions without starting over. This export / collation technique using Anki and Excel, for example, produces a merged list than can then, in turn, be used to create a fresh Anki deck.

Aside from that, auditing via Excel is a great way to check what you know in one of your languages but not the other.

 

The Polish flag. Photo by Michal Zacharzewski from FreeImages

Język polski i ja / Polish and Me

Not long back, a lively online language learning debate caught my eye. It was around the unassailable prominence of English as a medium for discussion in the polyglot community, and the irony of this within a community of a hundred other choices. Where is the diversity, the German, Japanese, Polish, Spanish articles? After all, we are spoilt for choice.

Of course, it is hard to get round this – not least because we all speak a slightly different set of languages. So, at least for now, English looks to keep its place as the most inclusive choice of language for discussion.

That said, I would personally echo that hope to see more blog and social media content in the languages I learn. Above all, being a blogger myself, it seemed like a good cue to lend a little ballast to the non-English side of things, to be brave, to publish non-English content.

Safe, comfortable English is a difficult spot to get out of, though. As a native English speaker, the reason for my reticence is probably one shared by many of my fellow anglophone enthusiasts: fear of mistakes, of others simply doing it better. That kind of anxiety is self-fulfilling; keep your fledgling skills too tightly caged, and they might just wither away.

Luckily, the chance came along to do a bit of writing along these lines, but with support. That made all the difference.

Good Timing

By complete coincidence, my iTalki Polish tutor Jan set a very appropriate homework task for me recently – a simple blog post, in Polish, about my personal history of learning the language. Writing from experience, like diary-keeping, can be an effective way to engage with, recycle and strengthen your language skills. But in this case, it gave me the opportunity to create something original – and not in English – for Polyglossic.

Now, the natural thing to do would probably have been to do this in one of my stronger languages. German, Norwegian or Spanish. You could say that Polish was simply in the right place at the right time. However, maybe that makes it an even better candidate. My lagging Polish is crying out for a bit of extra writing practice.

Let’s overlook for a moment (pretty please!) the discrepancy of this preface to it in English. Hmm. But for a first non-English post in a site full of them, it only seemed fair – at least for the time being. Baby steps.

Finally, huge thanks to Jan for the prompt and the copious corrections to this during class. Check out his own blog, Polish with John, for some fantastic original resources for learners. Any remaining errors below are completely my own!


Język polski i ja

Na Początku

Interesuję się językiem polskim od wielu lat. W latach dziewięćdziesiątych słuchałem polskiej muzyki w radiu u polskiego sąsiada, Pana Wilsona (jego prawdziwego polskiego nazwiska nie znam) i bardzo chciałem się nauczyć tego pięknego języka.

Ale wtedy nie było łatwo uczyć się polskiego. W bibliotekach nie było wielu materiałów do nauki. Jeśli ktoś chciał się uczyć hiszpańskiego, francuskiego, niemieckiego, dostępna była masa materiałów i książek. Niestety do języka polskiego był tylko jeden, bardzo stary egzemplarz “Teach Yourself Polish”. Było to wydanie z lat czterdziestych oparte na starej metodologii. Zastosowana była metoda gramatyczno-tłumaczeniowa. Pięćdziesiąt lekcji gdzie student musi czytać przykłady, nauczyć się listy słów, a potem zrobić długą listę tłumaczeń. Wtedy uważałem, że to było zupełnie normalne, że tak po prostu uczy się języków. To był błąd.

Brak mówiących

Nie było dostępu do mówiących. Pan Wilson nie lubił mówić po polsku (był starym człowiekiem a miał tragiczną historię i złe doświadczenia z wojskiem), a wszystko, co robiłem, było tłumaczeniem zdań nie mających praktycznego zastosowania. Tak nie da się nauczyć języka obcego.

Nawet słownictwo nie miało sensu dla mnie – słowa z lat czterdziestych, słowa I zwroty takie jak porucznik, pułkownik, polsko-brytyjskie przymierze i tak dalej. Myślę, że książka została napisana dla żołnierzy, którzy pracowali w polakami po wojnie. Po prostu nie mi pasowała. Ciekawe słownictwo, oczywiście, ale nie bardzo przydatne – na początku tylko chciałem rozumieć polskie piosenki! Ale nie było innego wyboru.

Nowy Świat

Wiele lat później, świat się zmienił. Nie tylko jest więcej książek, a też więcej metod, szerszy dostęp do materiałów do mówienia i słuchania w internecie, wszystko, co by mi pomogło jak młodemu studentowi.
Wniosek jest taki: nie da się uczyć się języka obcego bez słuchania i mówienia. Sama książka nie wystarczy.

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.

Meta-learning - know your brain (Image from freeimages.com)

How polyglot brains handle cross-language interference

Paranoid polyglots beware. After years of brushing off comments like “don’t you ever get mixed up with all those languages?“, it happened to me recently: I noticed a significant interference from one language to another.

The pernicious pair of languages comprised German, my longest and strongest project, and the not-too-distantly related Norwegian, which I started much later, but also speak reasonably well. The culprit? The word for vegetarian. After years of being perfectly aware that the German translation is “der Vegetarier“, I found myself starting to say “der Vegetarianer” instead. Norwegian shuffles and looks sheepishly at its feet in the corner; the norsk equivalent is “vegetarianer“. Guilty!

Since adding Norwegian to my languages, it seemed I had also added an extra syllable to a German word, too.

This kind of interference is especially common with close sibling and cousin languages. For example, difference can arise when close languages borrow words differently, ending up with mismatched genders for cognates as in this example. Similarly, when I first attempted to speak Polish, the interference from my similarly Slavic Russian was inescapable.

Evidently, polyglots are regularly learning material that lends itself to cross-confusion and interference. But we often worry about it, or characterise it as some kind of failure of method, when there is good reason not to.

Bilingual brains

Firstly, interference is a wholly normal feature of using more than one language regularly. Research into bilinguals reveals that even two native languages are not immune from interference.

But more importantly, cognitive linguists studying bilingual subjects have illuminated some of the brain processes that monitor and catch such slip-ups, and, crucially, learn from them. Now, polyglot language learners are not quite analogue with bilinguals. But these conclusions go some way to explaining processes that affect us all, and more practically, reassure the paranoid polyglot.

Our inner sentinel

The key topic of interest in cognitive psychology here is conflict monitoring theory. This approach to understanding thought probes what happens in the brain when errors creep into our conscious stream. One particular structure, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), appears to be our inner sentinel, monitoring activity and sounding the alarm when “competing representations” come into focus.

Interference is monitored by the anterior cingulate cortex.

The location of the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain. Image via Wikipedia.

Note that it is our own brains doing the detection. We know, on some level, that we have made a mistake. That in itself should be sweet reassurance to the worried learner. Our brains are simply not constructed to rattle off mistakes without recourse to self-correction. If you are familiar with the material, interference will always ring bells.

However, the anterior cingulate cortex appears to do its work beneath the level of conscious control. We are not even aware of it, save for the mental jolt we get when we realise something was amiss. That neatly explains that familiar niggling feeling when something questionable leaves our mouths!

Intuiting interference – some strategies

In fact, the research goes beyond plain reassurance. One study of bilinguals concluded that regular language switching will increase error detection. That will be music to the ears of polyglots pondering the sense of studying more than one language at once. It suggests a strategy for success: cycling through your languages regularly, rather than focusing on one at a time. This chop-and-change approach may help keep your ACC sentinel fired up to ambush errors.

Some platforms such as Duolingo are perfect for switching to and fro between active languages like this. It was using this very resource that I noticed my own Vegetarier-vegetarianer interference slip above. The site’s multichoice flavour of questioning in particular is a great way to flex the brain in terms of conflict monitoring and error correction. Faced with one correct response and two – often subtly – incorrect ones (often cheekily bearing a resemblance to another red herring language), those mental circuits receive a proper taxing.

Finally, let’s not forget regular speaking practice using online services like iTalki, too. Once, I would fret at the potential confusion from practising three or four different languages in a week. As it turns out, that could be just what we all need.

And those pesky Russian interferences in my Polish? Well, after a bunch of lessons, and a fair bit of forehead-slapping and self-chastising, they have thankfully vanished. Like my interference errors, yours will struggle to escape the watchful eye of your anterior cingulate cortex in the end, too.

The take-home message? Don’t fret too much about interference, and revel in your multiple languages. Your anterior cingulate cortex has your back!

 

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!