Alphabet Texts

Textual Time Machine: Turning to the past for motivating target language texts

Gary Barlow and Margaret Thatcher accompanied me on my language learning this week. This surprising turn of events was thanks not to celebrity friendships and psychic messages, but rather a lucky stumble across a treasure trove of motivating target language texts.

In truth, I was getting a bit tired of language learning textbooks. Dialogues about holiday scenarios and sanitised snippets of everyday life in the target language country weren’t sparking my fire at all. As such, I was struggling a bit to motivate myself to read.

Then, I happened upon the Icelandic media archive timarit.is.

Tantalising texts: balancing subject and level

It is not possible to overestimate the benefits of hitting upon just the right texts to motivate your language learning. There are two strands to bear in mind on that search, sometimes complimentary, sometimes conflicting: subject and level.

Subject is important to inspire you to read in the first place. For example, I’m not interested in race car driving at all. So trying to plough through an Icelandic magazine article on Formula One is going to turn me right off. Music or travel, on the other hand, and I’ll be hooked in – especially if the text contains some new information that will be interesting or useful to me personally.

Level is simply the complexity of the language. But level interacts with subject, at least in terms of motivation. If the subject matter fascinates you, even a very difficult text will be one you gladly pore over. And if you are familiar with the subject matter, guessing new vocab from context is a hundred times easier and less frustrating.

Textual Time machine

Enter timarit.is. It is a grand, online collection of digitised newspaper and magazine media by the National and University Library of Iceland. This incredible service makes accessible publications that stretch back decades, fully readable and downloadable in PDF format.

Now, you might well chuckle at my first searches. A whole world of information at my fingertips, and my first selection was anything but highbrow. I grew up during the boyband explosion, so anything that whips up nostalgia around that will pique my interest. So that settles it: what had Iceland to say about Take That in years gone by?

That’s the trick though: don’t shy from your geekiest interests. Be shameless! Dig around and find some material to explore and reminisce over. The whole point is to connect, to personalise, to enmesh your learning into your life – even the cheesy parts. There certainly was no shortage of vintage cheese on offer here, like this cutting on “Gary Goldboy“:

Tímarit (mbl.is)

Gary Barlow, 1996 (timarit.is)

Sometimes the time machine can throw some real zingers of historical nuggets your way, too. I happened across the following (probably apocryphal) story of said popstar moaning about the cost of beer in Berlin in 1996. Celebrity gossip ages quite well, it seems – still served with an eye-roll and a heap of scepticism.

Beer outrage (timarit.is)

Beer outrage, 1996 (timarit.is)

Our history – their eyes

Popsters aside, I am also a bit of a news and current affairs junkie. When I get fed up of the current dirge (which happens a lot lately), I turn to the recent past. Exploring political history, especially what happened in your own lifetime, can be an enlightening exercise.

Trawling the pages of timarit.is reveals an unusual passion: reading about my own country through the eyes of another. I spent a good few hours typing in the names of figures associated with big political events, then seeing the Icelandic take on them through archived, authentic texts.

Callaghan or Thatcher? They decide today! (Timarit.is)

Callaghan or Thatcher? They decide today! 1979 (timarit.is)

The marvellous thing about timarit.is is the sheer depth of chronology. Facsimiles go back to the turn of the 20th Century. I leapt from Thatcher, to Wilson, to Attlee, reading excitedly each Icelandic take on a turning point in my country’s history. Fascinated is an understatement.

Target language culture?

But just a moment: British bands and British politicians? It’s all a bit Anglocentric, so far. However, you can use these as a springboard for tropes closer to your target language. After reading about Thatcher, for example, I searched for the phrase ‘first woman’ in Icelandic. Which other trail blazers would pop up? Well, I wasn’t disappointed. I learnt all about Iceland’s – and the world’s – first female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.

Vigdís voted president! (Timarit.is)

Vigdís voted president! 1980 (timarit.is)

Of course, I have my own target language country fascination already: Eurovision. And there is no shortage of material there! I can’t explain how enthralled my inner nerd becomes when reading about the songs that I obsessed over for years as a superfan. Simply magical.

Eurovision Iceland 1992 (timarit.is)

Eurovision hopefuls for Iceland in 1992, feeling ‘well rehearsed’ (timarit.is). See here for the resulting live performance!

The fact that all this material is downloadable in PDF format is invaluable. I can simply load them onto my iPad (I use GoodReader for PDFs) and study them on the go.

Other languages

Timarit.is is a truly golden resource. As an Icelandic learner, I am beyond lucky to have open access to such a library. But where does this leave learners of other languages?

Sadly, while there are paid archives like the German http://www.genios.de/presse-archiv/, free materials like timarit.is are hard to come by. Perhaps Iceland’s size has made the task of collating and gaining rights for so much material a little easier than elsewhere. Still, even on paid-for sites there is some useful information.

The archive of German publication Spiegel is a good example. You can search editions back to 1946, although you must pay for the full issues. However, the cover thumbnails are intriguing in themselves as pieces of social history. They also contain a fair bit of useful target language in the form of headlines and subtitles.

Spanish news outlet ABC also offers its Hemeroteca (newspaper library) for information time travellers. I found this article on Spain’s first Eurovision victory, by Massiel back in 1968, particularly charming!

With a bit of Google search grafting, there should be something to find out there for all learners.

Archive sites are goldmines for language learners searching something a bit different to read. Do you have a favourite or recommended source of texts? Share them in the comments!

 

Parroting accents may not be the best way to fluency

Accentuate the positive: accents and language learning

This post comes to you from beautiful Belfast, where I’ve spent a wonderful weekend attending a wedding with good friends. The trip has been a treat in more ways than one. As a linguist, accents have always piqued my interest. And at every turn in this great city, I’ve been hearing some wonderfully rich local talk.

Most of the accents I’ve heard are some variety of the central Belfast lilt itself, while others are from further afield. A couple of times, I’ve been lucky enough to catch a bit of Ulster Scots, as impenetrable as that is to the untrained ear! During one taxi ride, I have to admit to the crime of nodding along while understanding barely half the conversation. I really should know better as a language learner!

Accents upon accents

But what I find most fascinating is how local speech patterns impinge upon the English of those who speak it as a second language. This should be nothing new to me, of course, as I hear chimeric accents all the time in Edinburgh. But, surrounded by them all the time, it’s often easy to miss the hint of Scots that inflects the accents of EFL speakers north of the border. Belfast reminded me of just how much the environment affects our acquisition of a foreign language.

I’ve always found that mixing of accents an incredible thing. It’s like a grafting of our life experiences, manifest through our personal travel and migration history, onto speech. Our experiences are etched, in sound, into the way we talk.

In Belfast, for example, you might hear it when the pure, short vowels of a Polish native speaker meld into the open, broad ones of Ulster English. And if you focus closely enough on your own speech in a foreign language, you will detect similar touch points. These are the lines where your speech past meets your language learning present, and both flow into one another.

Foreign versus local

As a language-obsessed kid, I would often dream of learning a language so well that I’d pass for native. Whenever I start a new language, there is still a bit of me – that dogged perfectionist – that would love to reach this goal. But is that goal attainable – or even desirable? Is it so bad that our accents in a foreign language are marked by our linguistic past? Is it such a disaster that sometimes I sound a bit English when I speak German?

Of course, the idea of environment affecting learning throws up the opposite question: when aiming for ‘perfect accents’, should we select neutral varieties as our model for our foreign language speech? Or is there value in allowing the places we spend time in making their mark on our emerging voices? Is Belfast, Edinburgh or Birmingham English any less valid as a learning goal than ‘standard’ English (whatever that might be)? In some language environments, like Norway, for example, it is near impossible to avoid absorbing some local hue if you are in the country for any length of time.

These two things are in tension all the time – sounding foreign versus sounding local. And spending time in Belfast, and loving the sound of these accent hybrids, reminds me that it’s really not worth worrying about perfection when it comes to your accent in the target language.

Think how stilted the English variant RP sounds. And it is far from neutral; ironically labelled as such, it actually comes with a lot of social, class-ridden baggage. Accents, whether they are local, minority, niche, sociolect, jargon or brand new hybrids that arise in the mouths of non-native learners, give colour.

Accent pride

It wasn’t until I went to university that I realised I even had an accent in my native language. It was the first proper excursion out of my bubble of home, and it was quite a realisation. It’s always a surprise awakening when you realise that you carry these geographical and social markers that you are barely aware of as a youngster.

As a young English assistant in Austria, I could barely escape it – I strove to tone down the Midlands low diphthongs (like ‘oi’ for ‘ai’) when I realised that the kids were starting to pick it up. “Do I really sound like that?” I thought. Even today, this is something I have to be aware of when speaking a foreign language. My natural set of vowels is lower and broader than most of the languages I’ve learnt, and I try to bear that in mind when mapping my own voice across. (Incidentally, it actually helps a lot with Norwegian, which – to my ear – shares a lot of characteristics with my own English accent!) Certainly, the way you speak your native language can create challenges – and opportunities – in your target language.

But pride in your accent can be a positive act of social defiance in many ways. Personally, I felt slightly ashamed of my Midlands twang for many years. During our formative years, the media drills into us a certain prejudice about accents, and the notion of how people ‘should’ sound. I grew up with my local accent routinely ridiculed on television, for example. Similarly, people in Newcastle and Liverpool have had to put up with countless research studies that position their accents as the ‘least popular’. Shamefully, this speech snobbery continues today.

Don’t worry – be happy

So where does this leave us? The crux of it is, again, that worrying too much about accent in a foreign language is futile. One one hand, it is impossible to escape the fusion of elements when you learn another language. On the other hand, this is where the colour is, the aspects that make you you.

Enjoy the variety, and don’t break your head trying to fit some kind of imagined standard. Your accent – native or target language – is a product of all your life experiences. Be proud of it!

Richard West-Soley aboard the SS Nomadic at Titanic Belfast in July, 2018

Aboard the SS Nomadic at Titanic Belfast

Change may be accelerated by societal pressures.

Change, society and the language learner

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

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

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

Language reflects social change

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

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

Brave new world

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

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

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

Stay ahead of change

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

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

Be on the lookout

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

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

Actively build vocabulary

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

Keeping ahead of language change with Google Translate

Keeping ahead of change with Google Translate

Read all about it

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

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

Embrace it

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

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

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