A wee book treat to myself: Colloquial Scottish Gaelic (Routledge)

A Book in the Hand (Is Worth Two in the Kindle Library)

Sometimes I forget how much I love to hold a real book in my hands.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the convenience of Kindle titles and other e-formats. Only the other week I was singing the praises of the Teach Yourself enhanced versions. A whole course – text and audio – in a single place (and it adds 0kg to my backpack weight). I still think they’re fantastic.

But sometimes you get a reminder of how satisfying old school is. I had one this week when I finally plumped for a long yearned-for hard copy of Colloquial Scottish Gaelic.

Why had I put it off for so long?

Well, there’s the price of the hard copy, for a start. £35 is a hefty commitment for a book. Especially so, considering that I had access to the electronic version for free through my university library. Not only that, but like many publishing platforms making audio content free, Routledge has put all the audio online. I could access all of the content already!

But for all that, I just wasn’t bothering to use the materials at all. Why? screams the spendthrift inside me.

Fast forward, my Amazon credit spent, and the book proudly on my shelf. I’m picking it up at every opportunity, having a quick nose here and there when I notice it, sitting down for half an hour’s mooch through the pages. I’m even listening to those audio materials and reading along, finally.

So what is so different?

It’s hard to put your finger on just what is so special about a real book. There’s the joy of the tangible ownership of it, perhaps. I made an investment in a thing – now I want to make the most of that thing. It’s almost like you can feel the weight of the knowledge you’ve paid for right in there.

And there’s nothing like using money (or vouchers) to feel the value of a physical object. I admit I get a bit of that as I curate a Kindle library. It’s lovely seeing the digital books line up neatly on those shelves.

But there’s  something simply cosy (or hyggelig, or gemütlich etc.) about holding a real book in your hands, isn’t there?

And sometimes it takes a wee treat to yourself to remind you of that.

Greek flag. The Flag of Greece. Photo by Michael Faes, FreeImages.com

Greek Readers for Impatient Story Lovers

If you go as giddy for language books as I do, then you too probably came over all a-flutter at the release of the Teach Yourself / Olly Richards range of easy readers. They come in an exciting range of languages, covering not only the biggies like French, German and Spanish, but also some less well served languages like Icelandic and Turkish. Irish and Japanese are just around the corner, too.

To the frustration of Modern Greek learners, though, there’s still no title στα ελληνικά. The need for graded Greek learning material urged me to cast the net a bit wider, and happily, I found some excellent alternatives to curb my impatience.

Here are three favourites I’m getting a lot of use from in recent studies.

THE ROUTLEDGE MODERN GREEK READER

As a language buff, I thought I’d mined all that Routledge had to offer. I’m not sure how I missed this little gem, then, sitting outside of its better-known ranges like Colloquial and Essential Grammars

The book consists of 25 very short stories adapted from popular folk tales. In fact, the compendium was pulled together by a dedicated folklorist, Maria Kaliambou, lending a real sense of authenticity to the collection. Alongside each tale, there’s a Greek-English glossary, as well as a set of graded comprehension questions – just like the Teach Yourself stories range.

The cover of Routledge's Greek Reader.

The Routledge Modern Greek Reader is pricey – certainly more than the tenner the Olly Richards story books will cost you. But there’s little else like it with such great support for foreign language learners right now. Definitely recommended for moving your Greek up a notch!

From the Greek Web

Like in Iceland, many prescribed texts for schools are freely available on the Greek interwebs. If you have the patience to drill down the links at Παιδαγωγικό Ινστιτούτο, you can find Greek e-books on all kinds of subjects. Likewise, ebooks.edu.gr and openbook.gr are worth a look. There are two resources in particular that fill that Short Stories in … slot nicely.

ΚΕΊΜΕΝΑ ΓΙΑ ΝΈΟΥΣ ΣΕ ΑΠΛΆ ΕΛΛΗΝΙΚΆ

Texts for Young People in Simple Greek

My favourite by far is actually a set of books aimed at young overseas and non-native speaker students from 11-15. Despite the target audience, the stories are fairly fun and engaging, and draw from a range of social topics that make good class discussion material. There’s also a good mix of dialogue and prose, across both colloquial and written styles.

 

ΑΝΘΟΛΌΓΙΟ ΛΟΓΟΤΕΧΝΙΚΏΝ ΚΕΙΜΈΝΩΝ

Anthology of Literary Texts

Despite the haughty name, Ανθολόγιο λογοτεχνικών κειμένων is a collection of abridged, lively snapshots from Modern Greek literature intended for native speaker schoolchildren. With both poetry and prose, it’s not only a bite-sized way to get more Greek reading in, but also an introduction to authors, styles and themes in contemporary Greece.

Both this and the previous resource are aimed squarely at schools in Greece, so there is no English vocabulary support, unlike the Routledge volume. That said, they make for pretty good TL-rich immersion!

And of course…

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention Harry Potter. If you can get hold of them, an honourable mention has to go to the J.K.Rowling series in Greek translation. They’re par for the course in polyglot circles, and if you know the originals, you’ll have a helping hand. I’m currently slaving my way through the third book myself.

So there you have it: three alternatives in the absence of a Short Stories in Greek. Of course, if Teach Yourself happen to be reading this: please give us a Greek version soon!

Have you come across any other easy reader gems in Greek? Let us know in the comments!

A picture of an open book. Image from freeimages.com

No Stress? No Stress! Are languages without accent cues good for the memory?

Some years ago, when I started learning Russian, I had one huge bugbear. Stress marks – or the lack of them.

If you’re a Russian learner, you’ll recognise that initial frustration. Firstly, Russian is an unfixed (or phonemic) stress language. That means there’s no predictable rule to determine where the stressed syllable of a word falls. Stress patterning varies from language to language, even in the same family. Russian’s close cousin Polish, for example, is a fixed-stress language, with stress so regular that you could set your watch by it. In Polish, almost without exception, the penultimate syllable of every word carries the weight.

So, with unfixed stress languages, stress can come anywhere, and that gives you a little bit of extra information to learn with each new word. Granted, some languages do give you a helping hand. Greek, for example, has stress as unguessable as Russian, but (so considerately!) the stressed syllable of a word is always marked with an accent. Thank you, Greek!

Not so in Russian. And it’s crucial to know where the stress is, especially in words with the vowel ‘o’, which is pronounced differently in stressed and unstressed positions.

Nightmare!

An excerpt from a Russian textbook. No stress is marked.

No stress = more stressful?

But perhaps it’s less of a nightmare than it might seem at first glance…

Memory Stress Test

The fact is that unmarked stress does leave you to provide that extra information from your mental lexicon, which is tough at first for non-natives. In the early stages, it will involve a lot of looking up in a dictionary, where stress is usually indicated.

But as I gained confidence in Russian, a bit of magic started to happen. I started to enjoy a big boon of satisfaction when recognising a word ‘in the wild’ straight away, knowing where the stress was from previous learning and exposure.

It’s just a guess, but I wonder whether the extra bit of brain work is actually a helping factor in committing  those vocab items to long-term memory. You have more information to store away with each word, and more mental heavy lifting involved to recognise and retrieve them when reading. In short, that’s more work to master them, and more work means more time for your brain to mull them over. It’s like a constant fill-in-the-gaps challenge to keep the language-learning mind in a constant state of workout.

Extreme ‘Fill-in-the-gaps’

The effect is even stronger in the case of Hebrew. Now Hebrew is quite a different kettle of fish, but the same phenomenon crops up for learners in another guise. On one hand, the stressed syllable is quite regular in Hebrew. Rather, it’s the entire category of vowels that isn’t usually indicated at all in text.

An excerpt from a Modern Hebrew text. No stress - but no vowels either!

The great Hebrew vowel challenge!

That means that the onus of filling in the phonetic shape of the word is completely on memory and experience. As a learner, you have to draw on all sorts of clues to match the word on the page to the item and its pronunciation.  It’s a kind of fuzzy-matching process that really sharpens your recognition of vocab.

I haven’t come across any research into this yet, but it might make a good dissertation topic for some enthusiastic linguist at some point!

Colours and lights make for a multimodal experience, just as learning should be. Picture from freeimages.com

Multimodal Learning for Restless Brains

I’m always studying something. It’s something that leads friends and family to think I’m some kind of superlearner.

Oh, I wish that were true.

Firstly, I’m always studying because I enjoy what I choose to study. And despite that fact, in many ways, my natural thinking pattern isn’t particularly conducive to long periods of close study. I get bored easily. I daydream. I’m impatient. I’m always thinking of the next exciting thing to learn, not the one I’m currently trying to grasp.

To be fair on myself, these are pretty universal human traits. Most people reading this will see a little of themselves in there, too! So how did friends and family come to think of my erring brain as a particularly effective learning machine? Largely thanks to a few tricks to get around those anti-focus tendencies. In particular, one big trick.

Multimodality

In pedagogy, multimodal usually refers to multi-sensory learning – including visual, audio, kinaesthetic aspects and so on. But the crux of it is variety, satisfying your brain’s craving for stimulation and novelty. In fact, your different modes don’t have to cover the whole spread of senses. They just need to provide an ample range of media and context to give the restless brain regular scene changes.

One thing that really helps me, for instance, is to have both a hard copy and an electronic copy of a text. I switch from one to the other, reading on multiple devices, and in multiple places. I can dip in and out, ten minutes here, ten minutes, there, and my brain doesn’t even have a chance to get bored. It’s a gem of a trick that works for course materials, reference texts and literature.

Multimodal PlanNing

To get the most out of multimodal learning, it’s best to be organised; the first step is always a plan of exactly what you want to get through.

Right now, I’m ploughing through a mountain of book chapters and papers for two linguistics assignments due soon. I know what I have to read and take notes on, and have a tick-list of the material in Evernote.

But to make sure I get through it, in spite of my natural tendencies, I ensure the material is multimodal. I have my reading in a number of formats – PDFs on my phone, tablet, laptop, hard copies in my bag , audiobooks and video summaries where possible – basically, everything, everywhere. Reading in one format and one place to start with, then picking up in a completely different modality elsewhere, really helps stymie reading fatigue.

And a nice side-effect? The range of environments helps beat the context trap, too, not tying your recall to a single backdrop.

When my essays are submitted, and I’m free to return to my language learning materials, one thing’s certain: it’s going to be multimodal!

Brennu-Njáls Saga

Brennu-Njáls Saga : Easy Routes into an Old Icelandic Classic

Brennu-Njáls Saga, or the saga of Burnt Njál, regularly ranks as one of the most popular and loved of the Icelandic family sagas. Thanks to its lively, twisting-and-turning and regularly bloody plot, it’s also one of the best-known, in Iceland and beyond.

It makes for fun subject matter, then, on all sorts of academic programmes at all sorts of levels. Needless to say, I was more than chuffed to get the chance to work with it towards my MSc this year. Who doesn’t like a bit of high drama for credit?

That said, as a relative newbie to the tale, it took a bit of prep to enjoy fully the immersion within Njál’s world. It consists of over 150 chapters, with multiple characters – both headliners and a plethora of bit-parts – and as such, it can be dizzying to follow closely. Especially if you are getting to grips with it in the original language.

Thankfully, there are some excellent resources to help out, whether that’s in Old Norse, Modern Icelandic, or English. Here are some of the best routes I’ve found into this exciting, distant world.

Brennu-Njáls Saga for Free

Dipping your toe in the water is the first step. And you can get to know the sagas for absolutely no outlay. Totally free. If that’s not an invitation to give them a try, I don’t know what is!

The Icelandic Saga Database project makes available the entire collection of family sagas in existence, both in the original (with modernised spelling), as well as numerous translations. Brennu-Njáls Saga, with its wildly popular status, is available in six languages. You can read online, or save to read offline as EPUB or PDF files, amongst others.

Brennu-Njáls Saga : The Cook Translation

As fantastic as free is, some of those translations are rather old. For instance, the English translation of Brennu Njáls on the Icelandic Saga project site is the 19th Century version by George W. DaSent.

However, some scholars prefer to set the more modern translation by Robert Cook – this is the edition set on my own university course:

Besides, if I’m getting to grips with a text intimately, I like both an electronic and hard copy; the Cook translation was a no-brainer despite the absolutely adequate older translation in PDF form.

The Perfect Spoken Companion

I find the ready availability of audiobooks also a great support when diving deep into long texts, too. Audible by Amazon have a superb English version available, narrated expertly by a speaker with native Icelandic. I cannot tell you how beautifully he pronounces the many, many personal names:

However, before you buy that, there’s a trick to get it much more cheaply than the standalone list price (nearly £20 at the time of writing). If you purchase the extremely cheap Kindle version (72p, right now!), you have the chance to add WhisperSync narration for £2.99. Oddly, that Kindle version is not the Cook version, as listed – it’s actually the older DaSent translation. However, the narration is the Cook work. Look beyond that minor confusion, and for just a few quid you can listen to the recommended modern translation.

Cowboy Crib Notes

Now, if you have a passing interest in Old Norse or the sagas, you may well have come across Jackson Crawford already. He’s the stetson-wearing academic who shares his nordic knowledge before stunning Colorado backdrops. His video catalogue is prolific and very current – he posts regularly on all sorts of aspects of Old Norse.

Crawford has helpfully published a whole series of recap videos for Brennu-Njáls Saga. They’re straightforward and clear – music to the ears of students trying to get their heads around the dramatic twists and turns. The first part is here:

Easy Access

Finally, if the original Old Icelandic is proving tough, but you still want a taste of the language, there are some wonderful free modern Icelandic resources available via Iceland’s education department Menntamálastofnun (a goldmine I’ve tapped many a time). They are retellings, rather than phrase-for-phrase translations, but offer an easy way in if you want to support your modern language studies too.

The Menntamálastofnun version splits the tale into two parts, available as e-books, the first part here, and the second here.

Takk fyrir, Ísland!

Góða skemmtun!

Whether you’re giving Njáls a go for fun, for study, or both, these are all great places to start. And if it whets the appetite, there is a whole world of material written about the saga. A quick search on JSTOR throws up myriad articles. That’ll keep me out of trouble for a few weeks…

Góða skemmtun / have fun!

Vintage TV set for franchise hopping! Image by FreeImages.com

Franchise Hopping for Fun Televisual Language Learning

This week I’ve been practising my languages alongside tuneful trolls and celebrity sambas – all thanks to a bit of franchise hopping.

International rollouts of TV franchise successes are nothing new. I remember my excitement in the early noughties on discovering that the UK’s Pop Idol had a German version. Yes, it had the slightly unwieldy name Deutschland sucht den Superstar (Germany is looking for the superstar). But it was the same glitzy, shiny, melodramatic format that I loved in the UK.

Back then, of course, it was still pretty difficult to find clips online to watch (28.8k modem, anyone?). Needless to say, I came back from a trip to Cologne that year with both the series CD and DVD. I still have them somewhere, in my piles of foreign language authentica.

Nowadays, of course, it’s a completely different story. With whole shows widely available through national broadcaster platforms, there are few barriers to enjoying overseas versions of your favourite shows.

So what’s so great about franchise hunting as a language learner?

Franchise Fun

Franchise exports are excellent language learning resources for a number of reasons:

  • the format is familiar, so you can guess a lot of vocabulary from context
  • they are fun to watch, especially if you are already a fan of the original
  • franchise exports are often some of the biggest shows, so are both really easy to find, and have lots of supporting material on social media channels
  • transplanted shows often include local twists that give an insight in your target language culture
  • they can be a stepping stone to get to know well-known personalities in the target language country, which you can then track down in more home-grown shows

‘Easy to find’ is always a winner for language learning resources, of course. The simplest way to track down a particular franchise in a foreign language version is to locate its entry on Wikipedia. For instance, on the entry for The Masked Singer, you can find out local names for the show’s incarnations, and marvel at just how far the show has travelled.

The online encyclopaedia can throw out some quite surprising facts, too. Before my franchise hunt, I would never have guessed that the Masked Singer started life as a South Korean series. Now that’s a great excuse for Korean learners to watch some gloriously silly TV – not to mention further temptation in my way to learn Korean some day!

Local Twists

Another thing to look out for in franchise exports is how they are adapted to the local audience. There are often some lovely cultural twists; Norway’s 2020 edition of Maskorama, for example, featured the staple Nordic troll as one of the singers. And that’s not to mention the cultural crossovers. Looking up China’s The Singer (another South Korean export), UK learners can enjoy watching home-grown talent Jessie J storm to victory in the 2018 series.

Once you’ve located the show itself, you can then follow its social media trail for even more authentic material. Instagram is great for short texts and videos. For example, Skal vi danse– or ‘Norwegian Strictly’ to UK viewers – features bite-sized interviews and behind-the-scenes presentations which make for great listening practice. Likewise, the comments are great for reading some often very colloquial language (if you can handle the barbed tongues of irate viewers!).

Franchise telly might be as far away from highbrow as you can get with authentic material in the target language. But it can punch well above its weight as a bit of fun practice content!

An image of someone washing their hands by maripepa m, freeimages.com. Authentic resources on health topics are easy to come by in times of Covid-19.

Language Love in Times of Covid : Authentic Resources in Translation

Authentic resources in the target language are vital exposure to improve your skills. And during a public crisis, it just so happens that topical materials are even easier to come across.

Namely, there is an abundance of brief, to-the-point and free publications on the Covid-19 pandemic right now. You can find them on the sites of official bodies like government health agencies and local authorities. Just like political manifestos and mail-shots, they are a good source of vocabulary if you find yourself talking about these topics in lessons. Certainly, I am finding that the subject crops with dogged regularity in my 2020 conversation classes.

And I have to admit, talking about it – in any language – helps to get my head around it.

So how to source these informational nuggets?

Information Hunting

You can seek out government information material anywhere where there is a sizeable community language presence. Initially, a simple Google search like “Covid-19 posters PDF” plus the country of your choice will more than suffice. After that, you will find yourself clicking through a rabbit warren of links to downloadable PDFs.

And they are there in numbers. In the US, official Spanish resources are extremely widely available. This page of Covid-19 informational materials offers a Spanish option for almost everything. But many other minority languages are represented, especially when there is a large diaspora community in a country. For instance, in Australia, a large Greek community means the same kinds of material are downloadable in Greek. Swahili, too, features quite frequently in US materials, like this Covid-19 poster. In fact, the Centre for Disease Control in America lists a dizzying array of languages on this page (select ‘Filter by Language’)

Authentic resources on Covid-19 in Polish - an NHS poster about washing hands.

Polish NHS poster on fighting Covid-19, downloaded via manchester.gov.uk

The Double Benefit of Authentic Resources in Translation

A key benefit of public information resources is that they are short and snappy. For beginner to intermediate learners, there is a lot to be taken from them without the sense of being overwhelmed by a huge authentic text. 

So why not just go straight to the source, and find materials from the target language country itself?

Well, the big bonus is that these documents are usually just one-to-one translations of the original English documents. That means you have a ready-made cross-reference source to check your comprehension of the target language. Look at them side by side, and compare the vocabulary and structures used, without having to second-guess or scrabble for a dictionary.

For certain, we live in difficult, frightening times. But authentic resources can be a great talking therapy, as well as a language learning boost.

Good luck, and stay safe!

A stash of tourist leaflets and guides in various foreign languages.

Lovely Leaflets: Making the most of foreign language tourist ephemera

What have I been doing this week? Well, apart from obsessing over topping Duolingo’s new global leaderboards? Mostly, I’ve been hacking my way through reams of foreign language leaflets and tourist material I’ve amassed over the past few months of travel.

Despite a fixation with order and decluttering, I have to  admit that I let the piles of paper mount up. When faced with racks of foreign language material on holiday, my eyes light up. I can’t help but feast on the freebies. From talking to fellow polyglots, I am certainly not alone.

So how can we feed our fascination, but ensure we make the most of these fun, free resources?

Scrapbooking is your space-saving friend

First things first: these things take up room!

“Kiitos” (thanks) on a grocery bag from a Helsinki supermarket. Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

A trip to Finland resulted in bags of extra material in Finnish and Swedish!

The fact is that few of us have room to store wads and wads of paper from a lifetime of travelling. We call this kind of material ephemera for a reason: it is not meant to hang around long.

As a teacher, I would store authentic materials like this to use in lessons. The physical resources actually had a use. Now, as a learner, my instinct might still be to hoard them, but most of the time they simply end up lying around. It is far too easy to forget about your stash of leaflets. My cache has often sat, forgotten, in a side pocket of my suitcase for weeks.

The good news: this is what digital scrapbooking was made for. I use digital scrapbooks to create snapshots of all sorts of cultural ephemera from trips. Leaflets fit the bill perfectly.

Scrapbooking tools

You can get started with any note-taking software or app. Create a document, snap your items, and annotate.  My tool of choice is the brilliant Evernote. But Microsoft OneNote is perhaps even better for the task, since you can position image elements more freely on each page. Most importantly, both platforms are free to use at entry level.

Alternatively, document scanning apps can capture your material and turn it into PDFs. I use Scanner Pro on iOS, but there are many alternatives across platforms, including free apps like Adobe Scan. Most of these apps will also hook up to online drives like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive, making sure your material is backed up safely.

Leaflets captured, you can safely offload the originals into the bin. But remember to recycle!

How to work with leaflets as learning resources?

To make our leaflet-foraging worthwhile, we need to actively use these resources. And the great thing about digitally storing your leaflets is that we can simply type your notes and workings straight into the same documents that contain the scans. Nice and tidy!

There are myriad activities and approaches for active consumption of the material. The trick is to be as creative as you can with them to eke out the most benefit. Here are a few simple exercises for starters:

Vocabulary mining

The simplest activity is simply mining the material for new words and phrases. If you are still at a more elementary stage of the language, focus on the titles and headings. At a more advanced stage, you can introduce grammar tasks such as highlighting all the verbs or other parts of speech. Interrogate that material for as much new knowledge as you can.

Translation

Try to produce an idiomatic, flowing translation of the material in your native language. Note where it is necessary to express the ideas quite differently from language to language. Are there phrases that are difficult to reproduce exactly in your own?

Play the interpreter

Imagine you are taking a group of friends or family to the attraction. Read or skim the material a section at a time. Then, put it down between each reading and interpret the gist out loud, from memory, in your native language. This is great practice for actually performing the task for real-life travel companions!

In your own words

A real test of language mastery is creative production. Can you say the same thing in several ways? Paraphrasing and summarising are fantastic leaflet drill activities for this skill. Read a section of material, then look away. Try, from memory, to reproduce the material in your own words. This can be spoken, written, or (ideally) both.

Local language for local leaflets

Remember, these are local leaflets for local people! Well, not quite. But be enthusiastically cautious about leaflets in languages other than the local one for that attraction. Most of the time, professional translators, who are native speakers, will have translated the documents. However, this is not always the case. We have all spotted errors in even the most careful of translations into our own languages.

As a rule, it is always safest to grab the guide in the actual language of the country you are visiting. That said, this never stopped me snaffling literature in German and Polish when visiting the Book of Kells in Dublin. And it shouldn’t curb your enthusiasm either! Just regard such material with a careful and critical eye.

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

These guidelines should help inject some purpose and organisation into your pursuit of lovely leaflets. Above all, just enjoy this excellent – and free! –  source of learning material without getting lost in sea of paper. Oh – and leave a few behind for everybody else, too!

How do you learn from the material you pick up on your travels? Do you have specific leaflet-learning ideas that help? Share them in the comments below!

The World (image from freeimages.com)

Challenging labels : exploiting globalism for language learning

Enjoying a cold stout from an East London microbrewery for my birthday, I glanced down at the label and caught a real treat. There was the satisfyingly short list of ingredients, repeated in multiple languages on the label.

Hoxton Stout - complete with ingredients in multiple languages!

Hoxton Stout – complete with ingredients in multiple languages!

Geeking over a polyglot product label is an observation that gives away my generation. I belong to that not-so-distant cohort of kids who cross that divide where the Internet flickered to life, the world became smaller and the everyday became truly global.

As a language-obsessed kid, this kind of access to target language was something rare and special. Any snippet of foreign language was valuable. A bit of French, German, Spanish on the back of a packet was a little piece of magic.

In today’s world, languages are everywhere.

It gets harder by the year to remember that it wasn’t always like this. For one thing, legislation on food labelling is (thankfully) tighter today. There’s much more to read on your packets than ever before.

But that explosion in multiple languages is down to a world of increasingly interconnected flows across vast distances. Those flows continue to be a rich mine of source material for linguists, however much we now take them for granted.

At the mercy of markets

The specific languages that we read on the ephemera around us depend on some complex, fluctuating chains. The ebbs and flows of globalism change regularly, and what seems common  one year can disappear the next. Language learning label hunters are at the mercy of markets when it comes to scouring products for vocabulary.

As my Hoxton stout shows, you can strike it lucky. Your chosen tongues can turn up in the most unexpected of places. Norwegian in a Shoreditch pub – who’d have thought?

But sometimes, you have to just work with what the markets give you.

In the UK right now, it is wonderfully easy to find labelling in the languages of Eastern Europe. In the current setup, European supply chains see products manufactured at a more favourable cost in the East, then shipped across the whole continent. To cater for multiple local markets, labels now include the whole gamut of languages in lists of ingredients and instructions.

Incidentally, the Open University has an excellent (now archived) course on this very subject: DD205 Living in a globalised world. Well worth checking out if you are interested in learning more.

Keep an open mind

For a learner of Polish, these arrangements are very welcome. But even if those languages are unfamiliar, or not yet on your radar, perhaps the exotic ingredient words are enough to pique your interest in some of these lesser-studied gems.

After all, perhaps we can respond to languages, as learners, much as consumers to product markets. Our choices about what to learn are broadened, honed, funnelled – and of course, limited – by the materials that land in front of us thanks to these global flows.

Constantly surrounded by a certain language? Work with it!

So how can we bend this tide of globalism, with its flood of goods, to our own language learning?

Hunt them down

Discounters like Poundland are a perfect place to find polyglot goods with global spread, since they are mass-produced for economies of scale without the expensive localisation of premium products. Once you find a rich seam of them, the sheer volume of multilanguage packets will busy you on endless shopping trips.

Globalism takes it one step further, too. Increasingly, whole outlets, as well as individual products from overseas, can find their way to your local High Street. Danish learners are in luck in the UK, for instance: branches of Flying Tiger are popping up in all sorts of cities, chock full of dansk-branded goodies. That’s not to mention Muji for Japanese students. Likewise, lucky French learners can head to L’Occitane for a vocab hit.

Flying Tiger Danish pencils - a linguist's spoils of globalism!

Flying Tiger Danish blyanter
a linguist’s spoils of globalism!

Seek them near – and far

You don’t have to wait for the products to come to you, either. Bringing things back from holiday is a great way to learn from packaging and feed your enthusiasm with the curiosity of others. You can, for example, turn overseas products into quirky talking points with friends. In my experience, few fail to be (at least briefly!) intrigued by Kvikklunsj, the Norwegian incarnation of the KitKat. 🇳🇴🍫😁

No wonder. It’s not only covered in Bokmål, but is a staple of Norwegian everyday life. Language, culture and chocolate – could linguaphiles really ask for more? 😋

Chocolate – and language – are meant for sharing. Delight in the opportunity to show friends and colleagues your world by bringing items like this back as post-trip gifts and explaining what they are. Explaining and teaching to others is a fantastic way to consolidate your own learning. You might even win a few curious converts to the polyglot cause!

Consume them actively

These products are manufactured to be enjoyed. So as well as consuming your chocolate or biscuits with gusto, devour that vocabulary actively too. Look up each item on those ingredients lists and turn them into concrete Anki notes. Make Quizlet or Educandy activities to test yourself on them. Look up sukker, miód and Hagebutte on Wiktionary for more detailed lexical info. Take your search further on the relevant language version of Wikipedia, too.

Always consider polyglot products a jumping point for vocabulary exploration.

To keep track of your finds, log them in an electronic scrapbook. Multimedia notebooks Evernote and OneNote are perfect for this: simply snap your wrappers into a note, and type relevant vocabulary explanations underneath for reference.

At this point, you may shudder: what have I become? Collecting electronic snippings of sweet wrappers and crisp packets? Don’t worry: Just pat yourself on the back and think of the language learning!

Globalism and the global village linguist

Even for those without grand travel plans, foreign language labels are a reminder that there is somebody else out there. Somebody, even, who might like to enjoy that Hoxton Stout in a market far, far away. And if language learners appreciate one thing, it is the nature of today’s global village.

When the tectonic plates of globalism shift – as may happen, for example, in the aftermath of current political changes in the UK – those flows can change drastically. The label languages of tomorrow may be quite different. We may feel helpless in the face of this. But perhaps a more proactive way to view it, as a linguist, is as opportunity: new languages, new cultures, new people.

Life, like language, is in constant flux: adapt, consume and enjoy it.

As contemporary linguists, we enjoy an unprecedented level of foreign language in everyday places. Seize the opportunities, and ride the flows of globalism. You too can get (linguistically) rich quick!

Lots of books - nice reading material!

Foreign language reading: books that speak to your heart

Building fluency beyond the basics requires regular, plentiful exposure to your foreign language. And there are few easier ways to get that exposure than through reading for pleasure.

As a lover of books, however, choice can pose a problem. Faced with a treasure of tomes in an overseas bookshop, the bibliophile language lover has a dilemma. Which book should be the one to focus all that effort on for the next few weeks?

It has to be a careful choice. After all, reading in a foreign language takes a degree of commitment and effort we never think twice about in our native tongue. Choose unwisely, and that book might simply end up gathering dust after just a few pages of hard slog and frustration.

Pick a winner, though, and you might end up learning much more than new words and structures: you might get a real glimpse into the heart and soul of your target language country.

It’s a serious business, this reading lark.

Reading expeditions

Serious, but also fun, of course. With the purpose of rooting out these special books, I like to make every trip abroad a reading expedition. And naturally, top of the list of places to visit on these holidays are bookshops. Bookshops fire me up more than all the monuments, museums and other must-sees in the world can. Most people bring back souvenirs: I bring back a book.

Through the book-hunting years, I have gradually learnt what to watch out for. The top danger is over-excitement: pop out for one book, and come back with five. It is too tempting.

But more is not always better. A surfeit of choice can overwhelm you, and through simply not knowing where to start when you get those books home, you might only read one or two of them while the others sit on a shelf. And clutter is the last thing we need for tidy minds.

That’s why I have a rule, now: only one book per trip!

Books that speak to the heart

Limiting your book-buying to one tightens the criteria for choice. The duty of that single book takes on great significance: it must speak to your heart. Soon after your purchase, you will be on the trip home, just you and your chosen book, all the others another holiday away (or, at least, requiring expensive overseas postage).

Put simply, choose what you want to read – not what you think you should read.

In my first years of studying German, for instance, I had an idea that I should read great, classic novels. I plumped for a couple of Thomas Mann editions, imagining how enriched I would be after devouring these acclaimed works.

You probably see where this is going. Predictably, they were extremely tough work. Instead of feeling clever, the whole process was incredibly frustrating. I even wondered whether I was actually just no good at this languages game after all.

The problem? That kind of material would never be my usual choice when reading for pleasure in my own language, let alone German. It just didn’t speak to my heart.

Letting go of cultural baggage

It can be hard to admit that perceived ‘intellectual’ material isn’t our cup of tea. We are bombarded with all sorts of cultural expectations about what is of worth in learning. If you value education, you can fall into these prestige traps, as I did. I thought that as a ‘serious’ learner, I was supposed to be tackling this kind of stuff.

But then, one day, I discovered Harry Potter – through the medium of German!

I bought the third book of the series, Harry Potter und der Gefangene von Askaban, as a teacher on a trip to Germany with a group of GCSE kids. They had read the books in English, of course. This was 2003 – what teenager hadn’t at that point?

One of the lads spotted the cover of the German edition in a shop, and started raving about it. To see what all the fuss was about, I took a chance on a copy.

A few pages in, and I was hooked.

Now if only I had skipped the Thomas Mann novels and hopped straight to J.K.Rowling. Nothing against Thomas Mann, of course – his novels are rightfully German classics. But the fantastical thrills of the Potter world just spoke to me and my interests more. I love a good fantasy tale – no shame in that at all. Suddenly, reading was a joy again.

Ploughing through all seven volumes really put the stamp on my German fluency. By the end, I was thinking – and dreaming – in German. To this day, I thank J.K.Rowling (and her translators) for that.

Translation versus authenticity?

Now, the purists might grumble. Harry Potter isn’t exactly authentic target language material. Though translators are skilled native speakers, Hogwarts is not the path to cultural familiarity with the German-speaking world.

But what Harry Potter did give me was a springboard. I clearly loved reading that genre in German – so why not seek out the same kind of material from bona fide native German writers? Writers like Wolfgang Hohlbein, Cornelia Funke and Bernhard Hennen, whose books sit comfortably next  to Rowling’s as works of great imagination.

Familiar works in translation, especially children’s books, may be a great way in to reading for pleasure in the target language. But they can also be jump points for exploration of home-grown examples of your favourite genre, too.

Diversifying

Of course, sometimes you just want to take a chance on a book, to stray from the beaten path. One of my stand-out reads of recent months was Firas Alshater’s Versteh einer die Deutschen, a quirky look at Germany through Syrian eyes. It is told with such good humour and warmth that I couldn’t put it down.

This was the one, single book purchase I allowed myself on a trip to Hamburg in November. Not quite Harry Potter, you could say. But I picked it out on a whim, just because the character on the cover intrigued me and I liked the sound of the blurb. It paid off – I can now add autobiography, humour and society to the list of German book sections to browse on my next trip.

Read whatever you fancy, and not what you think you should. Let a book speak to your heart before you commit to it. And never question your honest, heartfelt book choices. Believe me, you will fly through your foreign language books if you follow these principles. Happy reading!