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.


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!

Jars of jam. Image by freeimages.com.

Language Jam on Ukrainian Toast

What did you have for breakfast this morning? For me, it was a large dollop of Ukrainian jam on toast. I know, that makes two weeks in a row that I’ve written about food. But this time, it was purely food for the brain and polyglot soul, as it was my very first #LangJam.

My Language Jam language reveal, showing Ukrainian as the randomly selected language.

My Language Jam mission: Ukrainian

My mission: 35-million-speakers-strong Ukrainian. It was quite an inspired random choice on Language Jam’s part. I spent some years studying Russian a while back, and Polish is a major active project for me now. So it seemed very apt to check out this fascinating bridge between hotspots on my language map!

Duolingo = lazy language jam?

First off, I must admit that I maybe failed to match the verve of some friends and colleagues. I remain utterly impressed at the reams and reams of notes some fellow jammers have been making. Just look at this.

Instead, I focused on Duolingo as my main resource, with Wikipedia and Wiktionary filling in the background gaps.

I chose to use Duolingo not just because it was the easy, lazy choice. (It does just happen that it is, though.) I made the choice chiefly because I love the way courses usually introduce you to basic nouns and simple verb phrases at first. Instead of the usual hackneyed ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ and ‘goodbye’ phrases, you get a better picture of how the language works straight off. By the end of it, you end up with a mini dictionary in the mind – a great foundation to continue more serious study if the mood takes you.

Also, if you wind up doing several Duolingo courses, you can start to spot patterns between languages, since the first words taught are largely the same (people and food nouns and such like). It paints a nice picture of how cognates differ between them, and how sounds with the same proto-roots came to be articulated differently and so on.

It builds a kind of etymological overview of languages, and etymology is a big way into languages for me.

Duolingo Ukrainian – how does it measure up?

Whenever I start a new Duolingo course, it’s a fascinating opportunity to compare how the different language options measure up against each other. Ukrainian turned out to have some nice surprises.

Although I know the Cyrillic alphabet very well from Russian studies, I loved the facility to type transliterated, Roman alphabet answers in the absence of a Ukrainian keyboard layout. Cheating? Perhaps a little. But if you are just dipping a toe in, it allows to you start running in the language very quickly.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo.

Using the Latin alphabet to type Ukrainian answers into Duolingo. Maybe cheating a little, but so convenient if you are just after a taster!

The recordings could perhaps do with a little TLC in the Ukrainian section. That said, the voices are bright, clear and cheery. What more could you ask for, really?

And the trusty Duolingo approach of basic, stock words and simple sentences was in full force. Within the first couple of lessons you get a sense of basic sentence structure and some initial grammatical concepts like plural formation. In fact, the course reminds me a little of the excellent Polish course which I golded up last year. Thumbs up!

Making connections

As for the Ukrainian language itself, it was as expected. It turns out to be a goldmine of intrigue for someone with experience of both Polish and Russian. Admittedly, I was left with lots of questions. Where, for example, did the /v/ sound creep in from in the words for ‘he’ and ‘she’, він and вона? Polish has the v-less on/ona and Russian он/она (on/ona).

And the surprises kept coming. What happened to make the vowel in Ukrainian хліб, сіль, їсти (chlib, sil’, isty – bread, salt, eat) so different to Polish (chleb, sól, jeść) and Russian (хлеб, соль, есть – chleb, sol’, yest’)? Similarly, ‘city’ is місто – compare Polish miasto, and ‘horse’ is кінь (Polish koń). The word for ‘cat’ is кіт versus Polish kot. That ‘і’ pops up everywhere, and gives the sound of Ukrainian a very distinct, endearing flavour to an ear attuned to the other two.

Add to this special mix a tendency to have softer-sounding, fricatives in initial position where Polish has hard ones, and you start to collate a list of tell-tale signs to listen out for when discerning Ukrainian from its neighbouring Slavic languages. For example, compare Ukrainian це, хто (tse, chto) to Polish to, kto (it, who). Sometimes, building this skill of telling what a language is from its sound shape, even if you don’t speak it, is almost as socially useful as knowing one or two basic phrases.

For me, Language Jam has been a treat just for these comparative adventures. It widens the mental map of how words vary across space. Sometimes, as with Spanish and Portuguese, you can learn certain sound relations and ‘convert’ your knowledge of one into the other. At first study, it seems that Polish and Ukrainian are not quite close enough to do that, thanks to a greater number of vocabulary differences. For ‘animal’, say, Polish uses zwierzę, but Ukrainian тварина (tvaryna), etymologically completely different. But the ‘conversion rules’ at work here are certainly enough to act as a hook when learning one from the other.

Spare parts

When you view a group of related languages together like this, it can almost be like seeing machines that have been put together from a big bucket of parts. Each machine produces the same results in similar ways, but not always using exactly the same pieces.

For example, two Proto-Slavic roots for ‘to see’ have been reconstructed: *vìděti and *obačiti. You could consider these two different spare parts for the notion of ‘seeing’ when we build our Slavic language machines. Polish uses both of them in different aspectual parts, with widzieć (imperfective) and zobaczyć (perfective). Ukrainian uses a cognate of the latter for both perfective and imperfective (бачити / побачити – bachyty / pobachyty). Russian, on the other hand, uses the former for both (видеть / увидеть – vidyet’ / uvidyet’).

Ukrainian, geographically placed as it is, variously uses pieces with a sometimes more ‘Polish’ and sometimes more ‘Russian’ twist. ‘To work’, for example, is працювати (pratsuvati), akin to Polish pracować. On the other hand, Russian goes with работать (rabotat’).

And the ‘spare parts’ idea works within words at the syllable level too, and not just with whole roots. As a case in point, I just love the variations on the word ‘bear’ across the three languages. It seems like each one concocted a different flavour from the same syllable soup. We have Polish niedźwiedź, Ukrainian ведмідь (vedmid’) and Russian медведь (myedvyed’). Possibly the sweetest triplet of cognates ever. They sound like characters from a folk tale!

The stuff I excitedly share here, as if it were some kind of novel discovery, is undoubtedly elementary par for the course for students of Slavic Linguistics 101. But that has been the beauty of using Language Jam as a comparative introduction – exploring and deducing these things in isolation, all by myself. And spotting those relationships and connections is uniquely rewarding as a language lover.

Goal achieved? You’re jam right

These are just a few observations after my very brief exposure to the beautiful and fascinating Ukrainian language over the weekend. The experience has given me a little of that comparative scaffolding for Slavic that has already helped me get a grip on the Germanic languages. And in particular, it has broadened my experience of how phonologies diverge over time and place. For those reasons alone, it has been a truly enriching exercise, and another wave of the flag in support of endless dabbling.

Of course, with just a weekend to jam, the aim was never really to gain any degree of functional fluency. Instead, I was hoping to learn a little about the language, along with a handy couple of words to impress Ukrainians with should I ever bump into some. On that score, it is goal achieved. That said, the little I have learnt would serve as a fantastic springboard if I come to study the language again in the future.

I hope these wide-eyed dabbler notes have given other Ukrainian newbies a taste of the language, aroused the curiosity of speakers and learners of other Slavic languages, and prompted others to check out the fantastic Language Jam.

As far as conserves go, it was pretty sweet.

Christmas is coming! Make it a language learning one.

Last Minute Gifts for Language Learners

Yes, Christmas is just around the corner! And, if you’re anything like me, you enjoy a healthy (and very human) mix of perfect prep and last-minute lunacy. However well I plan, there are always a couple of things that sneak onto my to-do list in the last couple of days.

Never fear: if you still have language learning friends and family to treat, these are our top gift picks for linguistic stocking fillers.

Teach Yourself Tutor Series

There’s nothing more exciting to a linguist than a brand, spanking new language learning book. This year, Teach Yourself have really come up trumps with their ever-growing Tutor series of graded grammar lessons and drills.

The fact that these tomes are aimed at “Advanced Beginner” and above makes them particularly appealing to polyglot hobbyists, who often approach grammar with a ton of existing knowledge that can make basic primers boring. Add to that the fact that they’re available in some  lesser-studied languages with fewer available resources, and the series is a real winner. Props to Teach Yourself!

I’ve already invested in a couple, and am impressed at the clarity of explanation and usefulness of the exercises. I’d be smiling if I woke up to any more of these on Christmas Day, let me tell you.

My only request for the Teach Yourself Santa: please, an Icelandic version next year?


Virtual Chinese assistant

This tech project has been catching fire recently on funding site IndieGogo. It’s a virtual, conversational assistant designed specifically with the goal of learning Chinese in mind. Hěn hǎo!

It’s possible to pre-order Lily as a backer right now, which is a pretty exciting way to get in on ground level as an early adopter and supporter.

It is just available in Chinese for now, sadly (well, sadly for those of use who haven’t tackled Chinese – yet!). However, there is a hint that further languages will be added in future. Definitely worth bookmarking that page!

Otherwise, alternative virtual assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home have a slowly growing selection of language learning utilities, too. Amazon even introduced software for you to teach Alexa new languages in 2018, underlining a commitment to making the device more polyglot-friendly.

iTalki credits

Books and gadgets are ace, of course. But good old, human, face-to-face contact will add some real-world shine to someone’s Christmas language baubles.

There are few platforms as effective and reasonably priced as iTalki for online lessons. Whether your friends and family are already familiar with it or totally new, you can boost their learning with the gift of iTalki lessons credits.

I burn through mine at a rate of knots, so like-minded linguists will really appreciate some gifted learning time!

App Store credit

Similarly, we language learners can end up spending money like water when it comes to subscriptions for learning platforms. Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise… Premium tier access all adds up.

And it’s not just language-specific services, either. General productivity utilities like Evernote are fantastic learning tools with monthly or annual price tags. Netflix and Amazon Prime also have burgeoning collections of foreign-language viewing that linguists can devour.

As most such platforms are app-based, users can usually pay with app store credit directly on a mobile device. That makes gifting credit for app stores like iTunes or Google Play a great way to support your linguistic loved ones in their online language quest.

You can even acquire app store gift card codes for free through survey sites like Swagbucks. Surveys for pressies? Sign me up!

The gift of time

I’ve said it many times before, but the greatest gifts don’t have to cost anything. Solo learning can be a lonely business, and a bit of people power goes a long way. Why not commit to partnering a friend in their learning?

It’s not just about being a study buddy at the same language level, either. Studies repeatedly support the notion that we learn by teaching. In light of this, why not volunteer your time to your nearest and dearest as a peer student? That’s a gift to them and to you. Win-win.

However you celebrate this year, a wonderful Christmas to one and all. Good tidings of language learning joy – have a great one!