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

Rolling with It as a Language Learner in a Random World

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

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

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

Richard West-Soley at Language Show Live 2019

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

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

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

Rolling the language dice

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

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

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

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

Pot pourri

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

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

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

Plot twist

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

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

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

Speaking Bingo Sheets for Snappy Active Vocab Recall

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

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

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

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

Speaking bingo sheets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No lessons? No problem!

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

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

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

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

Adapting for the classroom

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

Structure and flexibility

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

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

 

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!

Printing letters. Image from freeimages.com

Personalise your vocab routine with Tatoeba custom lists

Often, on a learning journey, you find your way back to a trusty old path travelled a while back. And recently, I have found my way back to the mass sentence site Tatoeba in order to solve a very particular language learning problem.

Sourcing specialist vocab in context

The issue to solve was familiar to many of us: a lack of formal learning materials on vocabulary topics of specific interest to us. For me, politics and current affairs are such hot topics, and I enjoy chatting about them. Why not bring that into my conversational sessions?

Here’s the rub: not many language primers cover this material thematically.

Of course, I could dive straight into primary news materials like newspaper websites. But these are frequently well beyond the ‘intermediate improver’ stage I am at with a number of my languages.

The solution? Tatoeba’s vast corpus of searchable sentences taken from all areas of written life, and translated into multiple languages by native speakers.

Curating custom Tatoeba lists

Why is Tatoeba such a perfect platform for sourcing very specific vocabulary for speaking lessons? It is atomised, for a start. The sentences may be lifted from extensive, lengthy, real-world texts online and elsewhere, but they are broken down into single sentences for consumption on the site. As a result, they are much easier to work with.

For example, rather than scouring tvp.info for useful instances of the word rząd (government) in use, I can simply search Tatoeba for sentences containing that word. Not only is it quicker, but the yield is greater too; scores of sentences pop up in an instant. It would take a lot of online scouring to find so many items from scratch.

Creating custom lists

The second big advantage of vocab-hunting on Tatoeba is list curation. With all those useful governmental phrases called up, you simply work your way down the results, clicking the little document icon to add them to a custom list. These lists become you very own personalised vocab learning banks.

Mining Tatoeba for sentences containing the Polish 'rząd' (government).

Mining Tatoeba for sentences containing the Polish ‘rząd’ (government).

A note on quality: for best results, use the advanced search and ensure that you check the owned by a self-identified native option when phrase-chasing. You can even specify whether the entries have audio or not, which may be useful if you are brave enough to play with more complex options for export!

Advanced search options on Tatoeba

Advanced search options on Tatoeba

Once created and populated, your list has its very own page, including a simple text export option. You can also make what you have created publicly available, if you are minded to share.

Curating a custom list from Tatoeba sentences

Curating a custom list from Tatoeba sentences

After you have refined and exported your list, it is an easy final step to add the data to your Anki decks via File > Import. Likewise, importing into Quizlet is hassle-free with the basic tab-delimited format of the exported file.

Then, the real work begins as you start to drill your new vocabulary bank!

Material from Tatoeba imported into an Anki card

Material from Tatoeba
imported into an Anki card

Realistic expectations

A word of caution on importing your sentence cache into Anki: be kind to yourself. The default daily drip rate for new vocab items is ten per day. As these are full sentences, sometimes quite complicated, that can be a stretch. That is true especially if you are running these new sentences alongside your current decks, doubling your daily load.

I reduced my new card rate to five a day for the Polish deck above, which was just challenging enough whilst ensuring that I worked through them at a decent speed.

Back to its best

Tatoeba bounced back from a serious crash in recent months, and is now back to its best as a top tool for vocabulary expansion. It is a very welcome return for anyone hunting  custom source material for language learning.

As for my own progress, so far so good. Slowly but surely, that carefully selected material is making its way into my memory. And since it matches my interests, motivation to learn is high. Not only that: I am so used to drilling single dictionary items in Anki, that the fresh wave of full sentences has made for a helpful change. And it deserves a mention again and again: variety is a fundamental pillar in any successful language learning regime.

Give mass sentences a go if you struggle to find support for the things you want to talk about. There’s nothing like some vocab DIY to revive a tired routine!

A computer screen (image from freeimages.com)

Vocabulary cross-platforming : make your DIY language learning data work harder

A major feature of language learning in the digital world is the abundance of tools for building and testing your own vocabulary banks. Anki, Quizlet, Educandy, StudyBlue, Cram… There are all sorts of platforms for collecting and drilling the words and phrases you study. And pretty much all of them have a free tier, making these tools more accessible than ever.

But what most of these platforms share is an often overlooked feature that adds a little bit of power to your wordbank building. It is the facility to export and import vocabulary data in a standardised, cross-platform format.

The biggest benefit of this is the ability to create your word lists just once, then work with them on multiple sites or apps. So why is that so useful?

Variety in learning

For one thing, variety is particularly important for maintaining a healthy learning regime. Taking multiple approaches avoids tying your new knowledge to one particular setting, and falling foul of the context effect. When you make use of several testing platforms, you discourage the brain from binding words and phrases to unrelated cues like layout, colours, font, and even the environment you regularly use the app in.

Not only that: using the same platform all the time can just get dull. And if there is one demotivator you need to avoid, it is boredom. Mix it up and keep it fresh!

Finding perfection in the mix

No platform is perfect. Some do things better than others. Others do things that are unique and not offered elsewhere. Sticking to one single tool for your vocabulary practice is certainly not making the most of the wealth of opportunity on offer.

As an example, Quizlet and Cram offer a couple of fun, arcade-style games. These make a nice change from the familiar, text-based drills of many apps. Additionally, Quizlet has a clean, no-nonsense test activity, which combines four types of activity across twenty random items in your list. It’s snappy and random enough to stretch you with longer vocabulary lists. And then again, none of them really beats the interval-based flashcard testing of Anki.

No single app has it all – ensure that you get it all by cross-platforming.

Arcade-style vocabulary drilling with Quizlet's Gravity

Arcade-style vocabulary drilling
with Quizlet’s Gravity game

Ownership of vocabulary

I’m a big fan of creating a sense of ownership over your own vocabulary to increase motivation. Those words and phrases are a map of your own, very personal journey through the language. Be proud of them! Careful curation of a master list for use across sites can help foster that sense of pride.

Exporting your data from services that you use puts it in your hands. You can use it elsewhere, or even alter it directly if you like – it is no longer bound to a third-party service.

Getting at your data

Of course, you actually need to get at your data to enjoy all of this.

The first step is to locate the import / export features of your tool of choice. In Anki, for example, the relevant options are in the File menu. In Quizlet, you will find export in the settings menu for each of your question lists; import options, however, appear when you go to create a new list. If in doubt, search for import / export on the FAQ or help pages of your chosen service.

Once located, the standard format you need may be labelled differently from app to app. Generally, comma-separated, plain text values are the most compatible across platforms. In Anki, this equates to selecting Notes in Plain Text (*.txt). To maximise compatibility further, uncheck any extra options, such as tags or media references in the Anki example blow.

Exporting vocabulary from Anki

Exporting vocabulary from Anki

Exporting vocabulary from Quizlet

Exporting vocabulary from Quizlet

The text-only file created should contain all your vocabulary data, but be simple and stripped down enough to import into most sites. Comma-separated files can even be opened and edited in spreadsheet software like Excel and Sheets.

As a handy side-effect, they also double as emergency backups of your data if you store them safely elsewhere. Accidentally deleted your list? Or has the site you were using disappeared? No problem. You have your vocabulary safely squirreled away.

Choose your master

It is also crucial to choose your master. Don’t fret – your personal autonomy is safe! It is a master app or platform that you need to decide on.

Select a single platform that you use as your main repository – ideally the one you are most comfortable list-building with. You can then export from that into other services. This keeps things simple: any new vocabulary will always go into your master list, and you will avoid ending up with discrepancies across platforms.

I use Anki as my master list, chiefly since it allows for tagging entries with keywords, making your data queryable. For example, it is a cinch to run off sublists of vocabulary based on topic tags for various purposes. Anki’s Browse window gives easy access to these quite powerful list management features, and it operates very much like a database. Anki is also extensible with modules that enable greater multimedia control, such as this add-on for interfacing with other language learning web services to enhance your notes.

Browsing Polish vocabulary in the Anki desktop app.

Browsing Polish vocabulary in the Anki desktop app.

That said, you can even use spreadsheet software to manage your master list as mentioned above. Administering your vocabulary in a ‘raw’ format like this can increase your sense of ownership over it, too.

Don’t find yourself limited to a single vocabulary management platform. Own your data and make it work!

Are you making free resources work for you? Get the most of out of that wealth of apps on offer. Cross-platform your vocabulary!

An owl. Probably not the Duolingo one, but I'm sure they're friends. (Image from freeimages.com)

Building linguistic muscle memory with Duolingo

I achieved not quite a lifelong dream this week. Let’s call it a months-long dream. I finally reached level 25 in German on Duolingo!

When the moment of glory came, it was more with a fizzle than with fireworks. As the XP points ticked over, the ‘points to next’ level disappeared, a simple XP counter in its place. I won’t pretend I wasn’t quite chuffed secretly, though.

But hang on! Can’t I already speak German? As my strongest foreign language, what was I doing thrashing through levels and levels of a beginner to intermediate course? Of course, besides the gamified pride of having that shiny 25 next to the language on my Duolingo profile.

Well, fluency is never a done deal. Even our strongest languages need maintenance work to keep them in shape. And what started as a curious exploration of Duolingo’s German course showed me how useful it can be to use lower-level learner drill tools to reinforce your skills as a fluent speaker. Convinced of the benefits, I’m now using it to blitz Norwegian, another of my more confident languages.

So why is Duolingo so useful?

A Duolingo leaderboard

A Duolingo leaderboard

Muscle memory

Muscle memory, or motor learning, is the process by which certain skills become automatic and unthinking through repetition. You know the kind of thing: playing scales on a piano, using a computer keyboard, operating the controls of a car. They are tasks that we perform so often that they just happen on some level below consciousness.

Proficient language use has a component of this, too. As we become more and more familiar with the patterns of a language, we form grammatically sound phrases ever more automatically. After years of learning French, German or Spanish, you no longer have to think about gendered articles, for example. At some point you just get it.

The key routes to achieving this language ‘muscle memory’ are exposure and repetition. And Duolingo exercises have that by the truckload. That green owl has prepared hundreds and hundreds of sentences, each selected as an example of idiomatic, grammatically correct usage.

Automating those little details

The upshot of this is that you can work on automating those annoying little details that always trip you up, even in your strong languages. For example,  learning phrases to express date and time are a pet hate of mine as a learner. When speaking quickly, I am still tempted to use the equivalent of the English preposition, which is often not the same in the target language.

Take Norwegian as an example. To express duration where English uses ‘for’, the language uses i (in), such as ‘i fem uker’ (for five weeks). Even after years of working on my Norwegian, it can be hard to stifle that anglophone twitch to use ‘for’ instead of ‘i’.

Cue Duolingo’s Time topic. After bashing out exercise after exercise containing solid Norwegian time phrases, they are starting to come more naturally now. Bad habits start to break down; the brain is getting trained.

It is not just the brain, either. After typing thousands of characters of target language, the fingers start to instinctively know how to form the special characters on the keyboard. No more clumsy fiddling for å, ø or any of their kin!

Duolingo and the lost details

Fluency is not the summit of a perfectly formed mountain. It is easy to sit proudly atop your language mastery and assume that you simply have it covered. Especially the basics.

Hold your horses! Duolingo surprised me by throwing up some shockers that I had forgotten over the years. The gender of Euro and Cent in German (both der, by the way). The correct word for employ or hire (einstellen, not anstellen as I’d been assuming for years). They’re little things, and they would barely impede comprehension. But those lost details make the difference between sounding like a learner and sounding like someone who has really got a grip on the language.

Duolingo has even being training the sloppiness out of my language habits. Learning Norwegian as a German speaker can be incredibly handy, since the languages are fairly close. However, assuming similarity can result in mistakes. Using Duolingo on both of them has thrown up some surprising discrepancies in the gender of cognates between the two languages. More often than not, these relate to the convention around how words from classical languages, like Greek and Latin, are absorbed into the language. Here are a few:

🇳🇴 🇩🇪
cinema kinoen masculine das Kino neuter
ice isen masculine das Eis neuter
keyboard tastaturet neuter die Tastatur feminine
library biblioteket neuter die Bibliothek feminine
mind sinnet neuter der Sinn masculine
radio radioen masculine das Radio neuter
sugar sukkeret neuter der Zucker masculine

Where I would previously assume the Norwegian gender was identical to the German, I now know better. Duolingo exercises gave me a systematic arena to find that out. Without it, it might have taken me an age to come across them by chance. No more blindly relying on German for my Norwegian details!

Need for speed…

Many of Duolingo’s activities are translation-based. And a key benefit of this for already proficient linguists is the development of lightning-speed gist translation.

Understanding gist, or the general essence, of a sentence quickly is a key skill for operating seamlessly in a foreign language. Life moves quickly, and we must often act swiftly to keep pace. By adding a timed element to these exercises in its random test feature, Duolingo encourages learners to understand quickly. And true enough, after some time using the platform, you will find yourself getting faster and faster on the keyboard.

Challenge yourself to a few random quizzes (via the dumbbell icon in the app). See how quickly you can translate via a glance at the native language prompt or single listen to the spoken phrase, and work on extending that gist brain. Dictation exercises are also excellent for training you ear to catch things quickly, especially in languages with elision, where words can seem to blur into one another.

Interestingly, translation drilling is a feature of the platform that may well be more useful to language maintainers than learners. Although mass sentence approaches can be incredibly useful for increasing your exposure, pure translation is probably not most efficient sole learning method. The threshold of conversational fluency might be just the right time to jump into Duolingo’s testing tool.

…but recognising road bumps

Travelling the same paths over and over again is a good opportunity to spot where there are potholes. And through regular muscle memory training on Duolingo, you soon find out what your own weaknesses are.

A major lesson for me relates to what psychologist Daniel Kahnemann has called fast and slow thinking. These relate to the two tracks of thought processing humans are hypothesised to have. The first is a snappy, gut-instinct decision making brain based on heuristics or patterns. Its complement is a more careful, deliberating one.

When you start speed translating for gist training, you may be tempted to jump the gun and answer too quickly at first. Perhaps a similar, but slightly different sentence appeared on the screen two minutes ago. Your fast-thinking, pattern-spotting brain might catch only the similar part, remember the answer to the previous sentence, and enter that instead of checking the whole thing. At first, this would happen frequently with me – oops.

With plenty of practice, though, you can train your brain to engage its more deliberated mode whilst still maintaining speed. In essence, it is a lesson in “don’t assume anything”, and a good counterbalance to the speed translation kick.

Learning is a journey, not an outcome

It is tempting to see learning as something with an endpoint. But a commitment to a language involves regular maintenance and audits, which can be hard to put into play if you live outside your target countries.

There may be a hint of polyglot snobbery around using beginner to intermediate tools like Duolingo. But the opportunity these offer for stocktaking and strengthening existing pathways is too good to miss. And sometimes, going back to basics can just be fun, especially when it is gamified!

Already have a strong language amongst the Duolingo courses? Join the XP chase, schedule a daily drill, and see what levelling up can do for you.

A chamber of mirrors - reflective, just like talking to yourself can be!

Talking to yourself: tap your inner voice to be a canny language learner

Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness, some say. But it’s actually the hallmark of the very canny linguist, too.

Ask most experienced language learners, and they will tell you that the secret is speaking, speaking, speaking. But it’s easy to overlook how useful speaking can be, even when you don’t have a partner. When it comes to talking to yourself, something is most definitely better than nothing.

So don’t be shy (of yourself!). Here are some strategies and key reasons for talking to yourself in the target language.

Mine for missing vocab

When you are actively learning a language, you should be mining for vocabulary all the time. The problem is knowing which vocabulary will be most useful to you. Where should you spend your mining efforts? Well, talking to yourself is a good way to find out.

Try this exercise to start identifying missing words in your mental dictionary. First, set yourself anywhere between one to five minutes with a timer, depending on your level. Use that time to chatter aloud about your job, your day, or some other common topic in the target language. You will almost certainly stumble across thing you lack the words for, but want to say. Don’t worry – just make a note of that missing vocab in your native language. At the end of the five minutes, you should have a list of a few items to look up and add to your vocab lists.

Record, play back and perfect

Time spent talking to yourself is a resource you can maximise the value of by recording it. Set yourself timed challenges to chat about a particular topic whilst recording on your phone or computer. This topic-o-matic I created as a help for my own speaking may be useful if you are struggling for themes.

The resulting recording can be handy in many ways, including:

  • Checking your accent : Listen out for sounds you could improve. But equally, be proud of yourself by noting when you sound particularly authentic!
  • Revision : Build up a library of recordings on your phone, and play them back regularly in order to revisit and consolidate your topic-based material. (Note that this can be amazingly effective for other subjects too – I successfully revised for my Social Sciences degree by recording notes in my own voice and listening back to them regularly on the bus!)

As you grow more confident, you can go a step beyond simple voice recording, and try video. Practise in front of a mirror first, having a bit of fun with facial expressions, gestures and voice. Language is a performance!

If you are really brave, and feel your videos might help other learners, perhaps even consider sharing them on YouTube. There are many linguists who vlog their progress for all to see – just search YouTube for ‘How I learnt X‘ and you get a whole raft of sharers!

Talking to yourself before talking to others

Talking to yourself is an excellent rehearsal method before real-life language encounters, too. For example, I attend a lot of one-to-one iTalki classes on Skype. They invariably involve some general conversation to warm up the lesson. And that always goes better when I have warmed up a little beforehand by running through, out loud, what I’ve done in my life since the last time I met the teacher.

Make auto-chatting a regular part of your pre-lesson warm-up techniques, and you will notice the difference.

Run through the basics

Speaking alone offers a good opportunity to run through the basics, too. You are unlikely to find a teacher or speaking partner who will relish listening to you recite numbers, days of the week and months, for example.

Instead, you can try working some of this repetitive speaking into your daily routine. Number practice, for example, pairs up brilliantly if you attend a gym and like the cardio machines. Likewise, you can quietly recite sequential vocab to the rhythm of your feet as you walk along the street. And, like working out, getting your mouth around these very common words may help build up a certain muscle memory for speaking your new language.

Inhibition-busting

Successful language learning involves breaking down many inhibitions at lots of points on the way to fluency. Just think of that end goal – communicating with strangers – and you realise that it requires a lot of self-confidence.

Talking to yourself is a good intermediary step on the way. For one thing, it is something that doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It also reminds us that a key outcome of language learning is getting those words out there, into the world, through speech.

The greatest thing is that you can be silly about it. It’s a safe testing ground to try out all sorts of language. Next time you shower, give a thankful awards acceptance speech in French. Reel off a victory speech on becoming German Kanzler. Explain the secrets of your phenomenal success in Spanish. Be larger than life, and have fun with it!

Talking to yourself in mindful moments

Once a week I go for a one-to-one session in the local park with my trainer. I like to go as unencumbered as possible, so I leave my phone at home. That simple act frees my mind up completely, as it would otherwise be occupied by checking texts, emails, doing my Anki cards or – something I hate in others, but still do myself – idly browsing whilst walking.

Instead, I have some mindful moments to walk, connect to the world around me, and talk to myself! OK, so maybe not out loud (all the time) when I’m on the street. But it’s a good ten to fifteen minutes when I can just prattle in the target language, at least in my head.

Even in the early days of learning, before the sentences flow, there are things you can do. Try naming the objects you see on a journey (another lovely mindfulness-inspired exercise that helps you to notice the world around you). Did you see something intriguing or beautiful, but didn’t know the word for it? Make a mental note and look it up for your vocab lists later.

Fake it ’til you make it

However, if you do have your phone on you, it can be the ultimate talk-to-yourself prop. Feeling brave? Then why not walk down the street, pretending to have a conversation in the target language with an imaginary interlocutor?

To the naturally shy (like, believe it or not, me), or generally faint-hearted, this may seem like an utterly crazy idea at first. 😅 Pretending to have a conversation on your mobile? In public? Who even does that?!

But, like talking to yourself in general, there is method in the madness. It is a fantastic way to get used to speaking your target language in front of unknown others. If it feels too odd at first, a word of advice: you’ll sound less silly if you really try to sound authentic, rather than speaking in your native accent. Try to be convincing – it’s easier than it sounds, as most passers-by won’t have a clue what you are talking about…

Speaking, speaking, speaking

The ideas above represent just a few of the ways self-talking techniques can boost your learning. Try talking to yourself – it’s free, easy, and could be the perfect halfway house on the way to real-world, person-to-person fluency.

The next time you pass somebody muttering to themselves, try not to think they are insane. Like you, they might be learning a language! 

Building languages into your daily routine as habit is the first step to polyglot success!

Essential habit-forming apps for language fluency ⏰

Efficient learning hinges on habit. A little, every day, will go a long way. “We become what we repeatedly do” writes motivational mogul Sean Covey, and this could not be truer for linguists. If you want to become a polyglot, languages must become a regular fixture in your daily routine.

Inevitably, we are all human, and most of us need a helpful nudge now and again. Fortunately, there are some excellent self-organising tools to build those nudges digitally into your day. Here is an updated list of some favourites I couldn’t do without!

Evernote

Probably one of the most fully-featured and best-known note apps, Evernote has earnt its status as essential app. It also has a free, basic plan, which will suit many users; this limits note upload size, but as linguists, we deal mostly with words rather than pictures – handily making most of our notes pretty small! You can also access it on pretty much any of your devices (although you will have to choose just two on the basic plan).

At its simplest level, it’s excellent for storing your lists of vocab. You can tag notes with language / topic titles, making them easy to search through later on. The ability to have multiple digital notebooks is great for the polyglot, too – you can set one up for each language.

Habit-boosting Evernote

But in terms of habit-forming, there are some brilliant extra tools in here too. You can create quite rich to-do lists using the checkbox feature.

Example of an Evernote productivity list to help create a routine for your language learning - ideal for forming a habit

Creating language routines with Evernote

I’ve had great success organising my time using Evernote with Brian P. Moran’s 12 Week Year system. Evernote allows me to create weekly to-do lists as part of that plan. For example, these include tick boxes for things like:

  • listening to foreign-language podcasts
  • reading a certain number of target language articles
  • doing my Anki flashcards
  • getting my daily Duolingo fix

At the end of a week, I score myself on my completion rates, aiming for 75% or above. In the same Evernote note, I can also note down comments such as ideas for improvement or amending tasks. It’s a great way to stay on top of projects like multiple language learning.

Incidentally, I use this system to organise my work and fitness projects too. I’ve really noticed a difference since I started!

Wunderlist

Wunderlist is another staple app with a superb free tier. This is to-do organisation as its very best; the tick box is the very heart of this service.

However, here is the real magic: Wunderlist can supercharge your language habit formation with its recurring to-do items. Is there something you need to build in daily, like vocabulary testing? Add it as a repeating item, and Wunderlist will remind you every day at the selected time. You can even have shared to-do items with linguist buddies, using the app’s social features.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Streaks

The Streaks app lends itself so well to languages, that ‘Practise Spanish’ is one of the examples on its home page. This is a to-do app with a difference; it borrows gamification ideas from educational apps as a motivator.

The premise is simple – the user is motivated through the challenge of maintaining an unbroken run of successful regular task completions. In this way, it will be instantly familiar to fans of language systems like Duolingo. Streaks allows you to add this feature to any area of your life and learning.

Streaks is currently only available on iOS, and costs £4.99 / €5.49 / $4.99USD.

Coach.me

A free alternative, and one available on Android as well as iOS, is Coach.me. Unlike a standard to-do tracker, Coach.me has several achievement paths that you can sign yourself up to. These contain standard milestones for you to tick off as the app digitally ‘coaches’ you with regular reminders. There is quite a handy one titled “Learn To Speak A Foreign Language”, which contains twelve steps to get you started on any language path.

If you struggle with self-motivation, the app even offers the option of paid coaches. Although none are language-specific, there are a few study specialists on there that may fit the bill.

Hidden gems in the everyday

These are just a few of the sea of organiser apps that stand out for me. Honorable mentions must also go to Google Keep and Todoist, apps not specifically aimed at linguists, but perfect for learning languages. This is often where the best language learning gems are found; very general, everyday apps that can be repurposed for polyglots.

Are there any other favourites that make your top list? Please share them in the comments!

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

Language learning isn’t finite; it’s a lifelong process, and isn’t meant to have an end. As such, languages never count as ‘finished’ or ‘learnt’, but require upkeep and maintenance.

With this in mind, I’ve been planning some exciting mini-trips to German-speaking towns over the past few months. Since graduating from university, I’d taken my German for granted a bit. As my first, and strongest foreign language, it was a bit of an oversight that needed some correction. And, looking in the right places with the right tools, you can unearth some real bargains, and make maintenance breaks a regular thing.

Bremen was my first German weekend of 2017, back in May. It was a great way to ease back into travelling the country – an intimate, friendly and compact city well served by budget flights. I loved every minute of it, and it left me ready for the big boss of German cities: Berlin.

Why Berlin?

As a student, I’d shunned Germany to focus on Austria and Switzerland. The southern German-speaking countries had a special draw to me then, with my fascination of dialect. (Germany is just as rich in dialects, though – something I overlooked as a student!) Berlin was a chance to redress the years of negligence, and really get to know this icon of Germany.

Zip in and around with ease

Berlin is an excellent place for a weekend hop-over or short stay. For a start, many low-cost carriers serve the city. From the UK, I flew in to Tegel for £40 (FlyBe), and am flying out of Schönefeld for £30 (EasyJet). From the US, although obviously more expensive, there are still budget options such as Wow Air.

What’s more, connections from the airports to the city are easy and excellent. The Berlin public transport system (BVG) is comprehensive, fast and good value. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for all zones A, B, and C – including the airports – is currently just €7.70. And that covers local trains, trams and buses. (For most of your full-day activities, a ticket for zones A and B will suffice, making it even cheaper.)

All this makes Berlin the perfect candidate for zipping into and around if you have a limited budget and a short time.

A Berlin for everybody

The huge selling point of Berlin is its diversity of attractions. There are museums, exhibits and sights that will appeal variously to all kinds of interests. And entry fees are, on the whole, very reasonable! Pretty impressive for a major city (and welcome to a Brit suffering from a weak pound!)

Traditional museum buff with a love of antiquity? The Pergamon Museum is probably top of your list. Like showcase architecture and spectacular views? Then head to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).

As for me, I’m a political history nerd. Hungry to learn everything I could about the old East German regime, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period the city has come to terms with through openness; the Stasi Museum (€6.00) and DDR Museum (€9.50) are intriguing, often disturbing, but ultimately extremely enlightening places to spend time. For the linguist, they offer tons of reading material in the form of short summaries of key events with each exhibit. These are in German and English, just in case you need some translation support!

Deciphering East German soldier speak at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Deciphering East German soldier speak in an exhibit at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

History – and language – on every corner

The city is also full of symbolic, charged landmarks of political history, like Checkpoint Charlie and the restored Reichstag. To dig into the significance of each, I used the German language version of Wikipedia to do my planning beforehand. Additionally, public buildings have dedicated websites, like the Reichstag website – essential for booking the highly recommended (and free!) lift to the roof to view the cupola. The Reichstag reception also has piles of books and leaflets in German, all free to take away with you after your visit.

YouTube is a great pre-trip resource, with some excellent historical clips for fact-digging in the target language. I walked through the Brandenburger Tor, from East to West, after refreshing my own memory with German documentary footage of citizens streaming to freedom one November night in 1989. That made for a pretty special way to rei-imagine Berlin’s history.

The day-to-day

Besides the grand cultural experiences, there was plenty of chance to practise my more prosaic German. Berliners come across as open and friendly people, and it was easy to turn everyday conversations into a little bit more.

Being used to waves of tourists with little or no German, shop and restaurant staff seem more than happy to have a little chat if you want to go beyond “one piece of Streusel, please!”. Being curious and asking questions helps – “wie heißt dieser Kuchen?” (“what’s this cake called?”) was a simple but effective conversation starter in the bakery! Just the slightest hint of an accent will turn the simplest of questions into a chat about why you speak German, too.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

In short, I don’t know why I left it so long. Berlin, where have you been all my life? Multiple trips back are a foregone conclusion; the charm of the city and the inexhaustible pot of things to do ensure that. As an affordable mini-trip for Germanists in maintenance mode, I can’t recommend it enough.

A row of fitness bikes for physical engagement in the gym

Let’s get physical: Language learning through fitness

If you subscribe to one of the many theories of learning styles, traditional classroom or book-based language learning might seem a bit unimaginative. They hit all the familiar targets: visual, auditory – tactile, even, if you use devices or props like Talking Dice. But one kind of learning – kinaesthetic, or physical, movement-focussed – seems conspicuously absent.

Movement can be fun. And sometimes, it seems that kids get all that fun. There are already schemes that pair physical movement with language for young learners, like 5-a-day.tv. In the style of a fitness video, target language is inserted into the routine so the kids have fun moving, and learn at the same time. By all accounts, these techniques are really effective motivators in the primary language classroom. So why shouldn’t adults have a go, too?

Like a superset at the gym, you’re combining two activities here for maximum efficiency. Rather than body blitz and more body blitz, though, these technique engage your body and brain together. Two for the price of one – never a bad deal, and the very essence of hacking your learning!

Get physical with YouTube videos

One of the best things about YouTube fitness videos is that you can follow along even if you don’t grasp every word. Finding them is just a case of trawling YouTube search with some choice keywords in the target language. You could try ‘ejercicios en español’ or ‘Fitness auf Deutsch’, for example. Here are some of of the stand-out channels and playlists I’ve found:

French

German

Spanish

Some of them seem quite gender-specific, but there should be enough variety on YouTube to cater for every taste.

Videos too complex for a class you’re teaching? Maybe devise a simplified routine using parts of the body and direction words, for example – it could make a nice three-minute warm-up to a lesson.

Filling empty time at the gym

If you go to a gym regularly, you’ll be familiar with ’empty time’. It’s those minutes while you’re on a treadmill or machine, robotically repping out your exercises with the brain otherwise disengaged (or in daydream mode).

It’s easy to think of ways to fill this with language learning, and you most likely already do this if you gym – podcasts, foreign language music and such like. But there are other ways to push yourself too, not always necessitating headphones. Great if you find you’ve left them at home when you get to the gym!

Treadmill challenges

Last year, I realised to my horror that I knew loads of Norwegian vocab – but was rubbish at numbers. To be honest, it’s something I hear a lot from other linguaphiles – numbers are dull, boring, everyday kinds of words that just aren’t interesting to spend time learning.

Well, cue the treadmill and some creative gamifying! I find that the rhythm of a moderate jog – that regular thud-thud-thud of your shoes on each tread – is a great timer for some self-testing. I challenged myself to say (under my breath, I’m not an attention-seeker!) a certain number pattern to that rhythm.

For example, I’d start simple and practise 1 to 20 in order. Then I’d switch to recalling them backwards, from 20 to 1. After then, I’d do the tens, then I’d do even numbers up to 50 or so, then odd… There are myriad variations to keep your otherwise disengaged brain occupied.

And the great thing about it is its mindful nature; as you practise, recall becomes almost automatic, and the physical exercise almost easier as your focus is not on getting tired, but reciting your numbers. Very Zen.

More than just numbers

You can adapt this technique to any vocab item. Pick a topic – colours, say – and challenge yourself to say a new, non-repeated word on every footfall. Take it beyond single words – talk about yourself, or tell a story, with a word every tread. Great for practising connectives like ‘and’, ‘then’, ‘but’ and so on, as you form super-long sentences while you work out.

No gym? No worry!

You can take the principle of these ‘footfall challenges’ into any setting. Walking to the shops? Practise your numbers 1-20 as you go. Climbing the stairs? Count them in your target language. It’s a great way to make use of time when you’d otherwise be thinking about nothing in particular.

App coaches

There are hundreds of fitness apps available for mobile devices these days. Every aspect is covered, from nutrition to health monitoring and fitness coaching. Thanks to localisation – the inclusion of alternative languages into app interfaces – you can also enjoy some language practice every time you use these.

Most of the time, accessing foreign language interfaces in your fitness apps requires that you switch your phone’s operating language to the one you’re learning. Scary, I know – but it’s a brilliant technique to increase your immersion in a language generally. My phone has been speaking to me in Norwegian for the past year, and I’ve learnt a stack of vocab from it in that time.

I’ve found the following apps brilliant in ‘foreign language mode’:

  • MyFitnessPal: a food intake / exercise diary app – vocab like ‘saturated fat’, ‘carbohydrates’ and ‘remaining calories’ is now indelibly etched on my brain!
  • Runtastic Push-Ups: a great coaching programme that takes you from 2-3 push-ups to 250 over time. It will bark instructions at you, sergeant-style, in several languages, and provide Rocky-style inspirational quotes. Also check out runtastic’s other coaching apps here.
  • Apple Health / Activity and Samsung Health apps: these are bundled with recent versions of each operating system, and are the default steps / health trackers. Switching your phone language means all your data becomes a learning opportunity!

For sure, there are lots more ways to combine learning with other areas of your life like this. It’s both time-efficient and fun. And it can create a more rounded approach to learning by including physical, kinaesthetic aspects. And, by embedding languages into things you already love, you’re more likely to keep learning.