Speaking is like a skyscraper. Aim high, but watch your foundations too! Image by createsima on freeimages.com.

Speaking without foundations (and putting it right)

As I sit at the station tapping away at Anki, I’m impressed at the level of the vocabulary I’ve reached: interactive, futurism, equality… All those lovely advanced words! I enjoy a moment of language learner pride, before I remember that when it comes to everyday speaking, I’ve still got a bit of work to do.

It’s a problem you might recognise yourself, if you’ve tried any of a number of accelerated learning techniques with your languages. For me, it was all about grappling with Icelandic in all its glory immediately. I leapt straight into the language a few years back, working with iTalki tutors in a conversational format and lapping up that wonderful vocab.

The pattern was this: prepare a topic to talk on, and chat about it in the lesson. Some of the themes were challenging even by first language measures: politics, social media, technology. But using an “islands” approach, it seemed to be working out really well. I absorbed and consolidated a huge amount of vocabulary and grammar structures.

Speaking high and dry

For sure, it is a learning strategy that builds a solid level of competency, and fast. It has made me quite adept at prepared chat, a wonderfully useful and transferable skill for other areas of life such as public speaking and work presentations. It’s a technique I still use, too. I recently completed the #30DaySpeakingChallenge in Icelandic, and created a short speech on often quite complex topics for every one of those days.

But it is a very particular type of competency, or fluency, that this technique builds.

The crunch comes when you come to speaking a language in the wild. For me, it became painfully clear on trips to Iceland than I almost completely lacked the basic, practical, and social foundations needed to operate on a day-to-day level in the foreign language. Navigating social situations – even producing the most basic of niceties and stock repsonses – felt like pulling teeth.

Yes, I could rattle on about materialism, propaganda and language learning techniques in wonderful Icelandic. But when it came to ordering a sandwich on Reykjavík’s Laugavegur, I was lost.

That’s great – but can you just order a coffee, please?

Swallow that pride!

The warning signs were there well in advance, of course. For instance, I would haplessly flounder after the social glue at the end of lessons. Phrases such as “have a nice week, see you soon!” got stuck in my mouth like treacle toffee. I could clumsily construct them based on grammatical rules and vocabulary. But they never sounded natural.

Now, there is no shame in recognising these lacks, however late. And this is certainly not to bash accelerated learning techniques – I still use and love them. We all learn in different ways, for different reasons. It was always a source of huge motivation to prepare speaking topics on the things I found most interesting.

But here’s the crucial lesson to take: it’s easy to assume that by learning the high-brow stuff, the everyday stuff follows automatically, almost like a side-effect. Sadly, it doesn’t quite work that way!

Two tiers

Instead, it helps to view language learning as a two-tier process. You can leap straight in with advanced topic-based speaking challenges for speed learning. But, at least alongside that, there needs to be a nod to the social reality (if, that is, you are learning the language to use in a social setting some day – not the case for everyone!).

Some of the best resources for this are perhaps those that budding hyperglots might tend to dismiss as too basic. In fact, foundational primers like Teach Yourself – especially those aimed at more casual learners, like the TY “Get Started” series – are gold for training in social speaking. Yes, they can be light on grammar and more obscure vocabulary. But you do that elsewhere because you love it and seek it out! For the stuff at ground level you are liable to skip, you could do a lot worse than go back to one of these courses.

Their strength is in building social muscle memory for the language. This is the more automatic level of trigger-response in language, operating generally below the level of full consciousness. It’s also how a lot of the social interaction in our first language occurs. Just consider how unthinkingly you fire off “no problem” or “you’re welcome” when somebody thanks you. There is close to zero cogitation going on around how to form a grammatically well-formed sentence!

To this end, I’ve returned to what you might call the ‘baby chapters’ of Teach Yourself Icelandic and Colloquial Icelandic. And it constantly surprises me how much of the little stuff I had missed.

The best thing? It’s never too late to go back and learn it.

Many routes to the same destination – walk them all

Admittedly, speaking without foundations is a human flaw baked into the informal, conversational lesson approach, since it is only natural to seek meaningful chat with tutors. But perhaps we can also find time to squeeze in some ‘real world’ modelled dialogues too, like ordering a coffee or checking in at a hotel.

The crux of it all is that there are many routes to that same destination of fluent speaking, none of them mutually exclusive. Treading several different paths gives you a much more rounded feel for the language than a single one.

Diving right into a language and speaking without foundations is an exhilarating and exciting way to learn. But check out your foundations now and again, too!

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!

 

TTS can lend your learning some robotic voice magic. Image by Oliver Brandt on FreeImages.com

Disembodied Voices : Using TTS as a Native Speaker Boost

Native speaker modelling is a prerequisite for learning to speak Modern Foreign Languages. But when listening materials are scarce, or you struggle to find exactly the material you want to learn, then text-to-speech (TTS) can lend a helping hand.

Text-to-speech : native speakers out of thin air

TTS, or speech synthesis, has come on in leaps and bounds since the early days of tinny Speak ‘n’ Spell voices. At first mimicking chiefly (American) English, many projects have since diversified to conjure native speaker voices in many languages out of thin air. Polyglot TTS technologies such as Google Cloud’s offering are at the edge of machine learning developments, and sounding more and more human all the time.

Using these disembodied tongues for language learning is nothing new, of course. Switching the language of your digital voice assistant has become a pretty well-known polyglot trick for some robotic speaking practice. Siri has been speaking fluent Bokmål on my phone for a while now. As a result, I’ve become a dab hand at asking what the weather will be like in Norwegian!

TTS Toolkit

But as handy as voice assistants are, you can leverage the power of TTS much more directly than tapping into Siri or Alexa. At its most basic level, plain old TTS is brilliantly useful for hearing a spoken representation of a word or phrase you are unsure of.

For example, if you are tired of guessing how to reel off “das wäre sehr schön” in German (that would be very nice), never fear. Simply paste it into Google Translate and hit the speaker icon. The platform already offers and impressive number of languages with speech support.

Google Translate offers TTS features.

Google Translate offers TTS features – simply type / paste in your target language and click the speaker icon.

But it gets even better. Several other resources allow you to do more than just listen; they offer a download function too. This way, you can keep your most useful speech synthesis files and incorporate them into your own materials. Combined with vocabulary mining tools such as mass-sentence site Tatoeba, you can begin to curate large, offline collections of target language material with text and audio.

One notable and powerful multilingual voice synthesis site is TTSMP3.com. For a start, it offers plenty of language options. On top of that, several languages include a choice of voices, too.  More than enough to sate your curiosity when you wonder “How do you say that?”.

With a little Google digging, you may also find specialist TTS projects devoted to your particular language of study. For instance, Irish learners are spoilt by the Abair website (Abair means ‘say’ in Irish). Not only does it provide downloadable Irish narration, but it does this in a choice of three different regional accents. If you learn Irish too, you will well know what a godsend this is!

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Incorporating TTS MP3s

With your MP3s downloaded, you can now incorporate them into your own resources. Easiest of all is simply to insert them as media in PowerPoint presentations or Word documents. I personally like to add them manually to Anki cards to add audio support when I revise vocabulary.

The quick and easy way to reach Anki’s media folder on the desktop program is to open up the Preferences panel, then the Backups tab, and finally to tap the “Open backup folder” link that appears. In the same location as that backup directory, you should see another folder with the name collection.media. Anything you put in here will be synced along with the rest of your Anki data.

Note: always back up your Anki decks before tinkering in the program folders!

Anki's media folder

Anki’s media folder

Drop your saved TTS files into this folder. Note that subfolders still don’t seem to work reliably, so keep everything in that single folder. Logical file naming will definitely help!

Finally, when you create / edit a vocabulary note, use the following format to add your sound as a playable item, replacing filename as appropriate:

[sound:filename.mp3]

When viewed on your device, you should see a play button on flashcards with embedded sounds. Magic!

Anki card with embedded sound

An Anki card with embedded sound

If you prefer an even easier route, then there is an Anki plugin specially created for automatically including TTS into notes. I prefer the manual method, as it satisfies the the tech control freak in me.

A human touch

Of course, TTS is not a perfect substitute for a native speaker recording. For those times when only a human voice will do, Forvo is a goldmine. The site is replete with native sounds across a dizzying array of languages, all recorded by native speaker volunteers. Just as with the TTS examples above, the sounds can be downloaded for use in your own resources, too.

To round off our trek through native speaker sites – real and synthesised – just a final note on copyright. If you intend to share the resources you create, always check the usage notes of the website of origin. Sites commonly have fair use policies for non-commercial projects, so making resources for personal use is usually not a problem at all. If you plan to sell your resources, though, you may well need to opt for a commercial plan with the respective platform.

Robotic resources can plug a real gap in native speaker support, especially for niche languages, or niche subjects in more mainstream ones. Do you use TTS in innovative ways in your own learning? Have you come across other specialist or language-specific TTS projects? If so, please share in the comments!

You can still be accountable even as a lone ranger. Photo by Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com.

Staying Accountable as a Lone Language Learner

How do you stay accountable in your solo language learning?

I know I sometimes find it difficult as an individual learner. It’s an important consideration for anyone studying on their own. But there’s a clue: one answer is to aim for less of the on your own and instead, build elements of community into the approach to study. And that’s something that was thrown into sharp relief for me recently, as I took part in the 30-Day Speaking Challenge for the very first time.

Accountable together

The challenge has been around for a while now, but I’d managed to find one reason after another to put it off. I finally bit the bullet this month, and discovered a cheery, well-oiled machine well into its paces as a regular event. Run by online teacher and fellow polyglot Jonathan Huggins, the challenge brings together daily speaking tasks with straightforward, big-hearted peer support through shared Google Docs. Simple, but motivating. I’m not sure what kept me away for so long!

The particularly wonderful thing about the challenge is the way every participant helps keep everybody else on track. You not only record, but you listen to the recordings of others learning your native language, and chip in your native knowledge where you can. It creates a huge positive vibe of mutual support, and it seems like the completion rate for daily recordings is very high. That’s undoubtedly almost entirely due to the warm buzz from peer feedback and encouragement.

Learners maintain their daily recordings in order to remain an active part of this mutual motivation club.

I’m currently two thirds of the way through October’s challenge, which I’m tackling in Polish. Some of the daily topics can be tough, but I keep coming back for more every day. It has me convinced – so much so that I’ve already signed up to do the November challenge in Icelandic!

So why has the challenge been so effective for me and others?

Social checkboxes

With language learning, I’ve long been a fan of regularity and routine. Creating a regime to follow gives scaffolding to your overarching goals, and brilliant productivity tools like Evernote help manage these daily tactics precisely with checklists and plans.

Adding a social layer to this self-management brings something a bit special to these regimes. In essence, your checklists receive a potent, people-powered turbo-boost. Suddenly, it’s not just you. It’s a whole bunch of other people you want to run with and not let down.

Staying accountable means making sure that there is someone – besides you – to give reason to your checkboxes.

Keeping it fresh

It goes beyond that a simple motivational boost, too. Letting other human beings into your learning opens you up to a whole other realm of ideas and techniques. This aspect of socialised learning ticks a crucial box: part of staying accountable to yourself as a learner includes keeping up-to-date with new or different resources.

For instance, during this current challenge I found out about the very useful SpeakPipe site. SpeakPipe offers a web-based voice recording app, which saves recordings for a month and provides a URL for you to share them with others. It’s instant, works on pretty much any device, and takes the fuss out of making a quick recording.

But what is even handier is the function to download those files to keep offline forever. Using it on the challenge has resulted in a little bank of MP3 files I can use as both a record of my progress in Polish, and as revision materials for the topics I speak about.

Staying accountable by downloading your daily recordings on Speakpipe.

Speakpipe allows you to download your recordings as MP3s to keep forever.

There is also a sneaky side-benefit to these short daily recordings. They play perfectly into the language islands technique beloved of famed linguistic impresario Luca Lampariello. In this approach, islands are rehearsed snippets of target language that you have available for instant insertion into conversation. It’s a quick fluency tip that works well, and by the end of October, I’ll have ended up with thirty little Polish islands of my own!

Accountability everywhere

I’ve discussed staying accountable in the context of the 30-Day Speaking Challenge here. But social accountability is on tap in plenty of other places besides this excellent cheerleader for peer encouragement. You can satiate your need for positive feedback by keeping up regular iTalki lessons, for example, or attending a language café.

Additionally, there are myriad other community-based mini-challenges that run regularly and are worth checking out. Some are language-based, like LanguageJam, whereas others are not specific to language learners, but can be adapted to foreign language practice, like NaNoWriMo.

And of course, there is no warmer home for polyglots than the thriving polyglot Twitter community. Share, encourage others and thrive – even as a lone ranger!

Where there are fellow learners, there are friends to keep you on track. Seek them out.

A bunch of Norwegian banknotes - what opportunity can you imagine springing from these? Image from freeimages.com

Polyglot Superpowers : Turning Calamity into Opportunity

Foreign languages are superpowers. A bold claim? Well, just think about it: they allow you to perform impressive feats that others cannot. Polyglot people can leverage their skills to open doors, get things done, create opportunities and build bridges, amongst many other things.

Still not convinced by the superpower label? Think of it this way. Just like superpowers, those without foreign language skills actually wish for it as a skill. “Learning Spanish”, for example, featured recently in a top ten ‘most desired’ skill list according to Skillup.

Powerful, elusive and desired: language skills are definitely super.

So what feats can we achieve with foreign languages? Mulling this over brought to mind a personal holiday headache where languages saved the day (and a fair bit of cash)…

Funny money

Being a lover of norsk, I try to travel to Norway as often as possible to practise. As a result, I tend to have a few Norwegian coins and notes lying around the house. No great fortunes, of course – I should be so lucky! Usually, it’s just a few NOK here and a couple of NOK there. But just before I left on this particular trip, I made a lucky find: three crisp, forgotten 200 NOK notes in a drawer. Nearly £60 I’d forgotten about. What a stroke of luck!

That is, until I got to Norway and tried use one to pay for my calzone in Deli de Luca. (Please don’t judge me – it’s one of the cheapest ways to eat as a visitor to Norway on a non-Norwegian wage!) Expecting a smooth, easy transaction – level A1 stuff at best – I was met with a stern look and a “det gjelder ikke lenger” (that’s no longer valid). Yes, unbeknownst to me, Norges Bank had withdrawn billions of NOK’s worth of money since I exchanged those forgotten notes at the Post Office. Oops.

Treasure hunt

Miffed at the thought of wasted money, the usual reservedness fell away. I had to find out what was going on.

Now, when you really want to know something, it’s astonishing how quickly and easily the words flow. And, through a bit of agitated questioning, I learnt from my Deli de Luca operative that all was not lost. There was still just one single bank in Oslo where I could exchange the old notes for new.

When you really want to know something, it’s astonishing how quickly and easily the words flow.

The treasure hunt was on, and it was an Odyssey of words. Using my best Bokmål on the staff at my hotel, I first figured out how to get to the bank. Being on the opposite side of town (typical!), I had to crack out my very best phrasebook language in order to navigate across the breadth of the city. Then, at the austere-looking bank offices, I explained my way past the security guard, and then on to the elderly teller, bemused by the story of the money I almost left past its sell-by date.

Finally – mission accomplished! I walked away with three brand new, reissued 200 kroner notes. Only as the determination gave way to relief did I realise how much Norwegian I’d spoken along the adventure.

And to think that I’d started this journey feeling nervous about asking for a calzone!

Polyglot power-up opportunities

Hey presto. A bit of language magic turned a handful of worthless paper into enough cash for a (rather small) Norwegian meal. Now, could I have navigated this calamity using English? Most likely, since there is wide knowledge of English in Norway.

But would I have learnt anything? Not a fraction. As it was, I felt the polyglot superpower grow just a little bit stronger for it. And I am certain that the whole process was smoother for the smiles and nods at a foreign visitor making the effort to speak the language. It can really bring out the best in people, disarming them and eliciting warmth and kindness. Speak, gesture, explain, but above all, communicate to get the help you need.

You can apply your foreign language magic to most holiday headache situations, and watch the shoots grow. And, as I found, there is little greater motivation to speak than the need to sort out personal issues. (Money, food and drink are all very effective, in my experience!)

In the path of danger?

Obviously nobody wants to go out actively seeking disaster. But there are ways to put yourself in the path of danger, so to speak, in safe and controlled ways.

Set up situations where you need to speak the language to get along

For one thing, you can actively set up situations where you need to speak the language to get along. Try booking self-catering accommodation, for example.  The basic need for food will force you out to practise those supermarket conversations. Or even better: make a point of going to smaller, local grocery shops for your ingredients. That’s a polyglot treasure hunt with a tasty reward at the end of it!

If you are something of a shy polyglot like me, then these motivational scenarios are excellent for bringing you out of your shell.

The magic of the everyday

That polyglot problem-solving power is a tool on your belt to handle any situation you might find yourself in on your travels. Of course, on the face of it, you might say that there is no magic here. This is just plain old resourcefulness, right?

Well, it cannot hurt to lend a little magical realism to an appraisal of your skills. Superpowers, like all skills and abilities, are means to an end, ways to get things done. Keep busting calamities in your billowing cape. And think of your language skills as superpowers with a bit of open sesame! magic. It’s a great way to create a sense of pride in them.

Beginner CD resources can help you audit your accent as an advanced learner. Image from freeimages.com

Revisiting beginner resources for an accent audit

We all have languages we are proud of, languages we’ve worked hard at over the years. I count Norwegian as one of those. One I chose, rather than had thrust upon me at school, it’s something I’ve kept chugging away at, always returning to over the years of learning. Via various courses, resources and plentiful podcasts, I’ve worked my way to a fairly decent B1/2. Well, depending on what I’m talking about, of course: I’m probably a C1 when talking about Eurovision!

Bargain Resources: fantastic finds or faux pas?

With those core languages, those labours of love, we never really stop learning. Even today, I am forever on the lookout for fresh resources, particularly audio courses. There is always something new to glean from a shiny new tome or CD. Imagine my delight when, in a Dublin bookshop, I spotted a real bargain: the CD course Keep Talking Norwegian from Teach Yourself, for just €10!

I realised my mistake afterwards. I’d glanced at it, got excited at Norwegian in the title, and assumed it was another title I’d had my eye on for a while: the B1-2 resource from Teach Yourself, Enjoy Norwegian. But the book I’d excitedly snapped up was for upper beginners, barely A1.

Oops.

Now, a bit of modesty is essential in language learning. There is always something else to learn; we can never say we have completely learnt a language. But as an intermediate learner who already listens comfortably to Norwegian podcasts like Språkteigen, I was initially miffed at my seemingly less-than-useful accidental purchase. It represented a bit of a change of gear, to say the least.


An easy mistake?

Making the best of it

Never one to be deterred by calamity, I got thinking about how to make the best of my mistaken purchase. And it turns out that beginner resources are far from useless, even as an advanced learner.

Audit your accent

Entry-level listening materials represent clear, deliberate pronunciation. As such, they act as a model for newcomers to the sounds of a language. But jumping back into those beginner dialogues is also a great opportunity to audit your current accent habits.

Use that considered speech model to interrogate your own voice. Are there certain sounds that you have fallen into bad habits with? Do you detect any difference between how you pronounce certain sounds compared to the native speaker model? Are there words that you perhaps didn’t realise you were stressing incorrectly?

One remedied niggle in my case was the Norwegian au-sound. Probably due to interference from other languages, I’d fallen into a slightly lazy, un-Norwegian pronunciation of this very characteristic standard Bokmål vowel combination. Lost in a wood of words, it was a problematic tree that I failed to see when listening to complex, flowing, everyday speech. But returning to slow, careful models of speech was enough to give me a push back in the right direction.

Accent awareness

As models for learners, basic resources can be a good reminder of what is considered standard in your language, too. You may well have deviated from this through exposure to multiple varieties, and this is no bad thing: accent and dialect make languages all the richer. But reacquainting yourself with the form designated the norm (and recognising that is a politically contentious idea in itself) will only strengthen your mental map of the language.

As an advanced learner, you have so many more examples to draw on from experience. This enables you to critique and dissect the recordings in a way that would never have been possible in your early days as a learner.

Listening to novice materials, you may surprise yourself by the observations you now make. In Norwegian, for example, accents differ on their pronunciation of the letter r – rolled or guttural. It can be satisfying to spot quirks like this in starter-level resources, and realise something exciting: you have progressed enough not only to understand words and phrases, but actually pinpoint varieties in the world space of your language.

Practise, practise, practise

Finally – and this is impossible to understate – nobody’s knowledge is ever perfect, complete, or even immune to the passage of time. It is sometimes sobering to dip back into these early resources and catch the odd forgotten (or missed) foundation word or phrase.

This utility of revisiting beginner resources is also why a regular wallow in Duolingo can be so handy, even for languages we are supposed to ‘know already’. And embracing that as a tactic is a step towards building a healthy. practical modesty as a language learner that never sees you resting on your laurels!

So, it seems, my accidental purchase wasn’t such a disaster after all. It makes sense to actively seek out these kinds of material for a regular accent audit. And at the point we have eked out all the use we can from them, well, why not pass it forward and donate them to another eager polyglot-in-the-making?

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!

Voice assistants - multilingual robot helpers in your phone! (Image from freeimages.com)

You cannot be Siri-ous! Voice Assistants for Language Learning

Switching the language settings on your phone is a well-known trick for fast-tracking your language learning. But with constant improvement to Voice Assistant technology like Siri and Google Assistant, learners have something potentially even more exciting in their pockets: a mobile native speaker.

How can we take advantage of this ubiquitous technology? And how effective is it as a learning tool?

I road-tested the technique over the past few weeks using Siri in Norwegian on my iPhone. And above all, it has been a fun ride!

Behaviour change

The irony is that in spite of the widespread nature of the tech, Voice Assistants struggle to find a regular place in our lives. Barely a quarter of mobile users speak to their phone daily; 40% say they have never used the feature. Many of us leave the powerful technology of personalised AI unused, even in our native languages.

From my own personal experience, and that of family and friends, it seems that Voice Assistant apps are entertaining curios rather than serious tools. When was the last time you last asked your phone for something?

Given all this, just using Siri at all is a behaviour change for a lot of us. But that makes this technique something of a voyage of discovery, too. Just what can our clever smartphones actually do?

Vocab of the day-to-day

The answer: well, not quite everything, despite the grand claims. Siri and Google Assistant have a set of skills which focus very tightly on the organisation of the day-to-day. They are not as clever at more transactional, lengthy exchanges. So while they might not improve your general conversation skills, they provide an excellent language workout for weather, time and place vocabulary in particular.

Through experimenting with your phone, will find your own unique way to fit these specified skills of foreign language Voice Assistants into your life. For me, as a walker, the handiest phrases in my everyday have been:

  • What is the temperature today?
  • How is the weather today?
  • When is sunset today?

After repeated use of those, my Norwegian weather and time vocab is positively steaming! And the best thing? I typically hate practising number, time and date vocabulary in any language. That is the material I will skip first to get to the ‘meaty’ stuff as a learner. The novelty of using Siri in Norwegian has finally got me practising – and remembering – those essential phrases. Aiming to ask one or two of these questions daily makes for a good weekly plan tactic, too.

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Using a Voice Assistant to practise speaking Norwegian

Thinking on your feet

Microchips are not perfect. Your voice assistant may not always understand you first time round. That goes especially for the early stages of language learning when our speech is less colloquial. But the upside to that? It is a stellar learning opportunity.

Misunderstandings with your digital assistant force you to practise rephrasing, an essential skill in speaking foreign languages. If it doesn’t work first time, say it again in a different way. It is just as valid with your Voice Assistant as with a flesh-and-blood native speaker.

Of course, this can be a challenge. After three attempts at finding out where the nearest supermarket is, desperation may creep in. But it does force you to be creative!

Have a little fun

Now, riveting conversation all this may not be. But that is not to say that there is no attempt on the part of the developers to add some personality spice. Who hasn’t said something silly to their Voice Assistant on the first encounter, just to elicit a funny response?

If you tire of the weather, try “do you like me?“, “are you happy?” or even “I love you” in the target language. The responses may be enlightening!

Translation station

As a side note, it may seem obvious, but don’t forget that Voice Assistant apps also offer direct translation capabilities. Learning the phrases for how do you say X in … and translate X into Y turn your phone into a quick dictionary tool. The catch: it might not be available in your target-native language pair (as is the case with Norwegian-English, unfortunately).

When Siri cannot translate.

“Hey Siri, how do you say ‘translate’ in English?” “I cannot translate from that language yet, but I can search for it on the Internet.”

Cross-language fail

As fun as this language learning technique is, it is not trouble-free. In particular, there are problems when languages cross over in our multilingual lives. For instance, you may need to accustom yourself to saying the names of family and friends phonetically, as if they were target language words. Otherwise, asking Norwegian Siri to call Aisling is going to result in a very blank digital stare.

Messaging functionality is also compromised due to this cross-language fail. I instructed Siri – in Norwegian – to send a text to a friend, then dictated the text in English. Predictably (easy to say now!), Siri tried to make sense of my message as Norwegian. I now have no idea what it was originally meant to say, but it caused a great deal of confusion at the other end!

A garbled text message from my Voice Assistant

What happens when your Norwegian Voice Assistant tries to send a text in English…

One-track language

The fact is that it is quite inconvenient to switch your Voice Assistant language settings all the time. So, if you want to take advantage of this technique, you will have to accept that certain things like text and calendar functions will be hampered – if not rendered completely impossible – while you are in learning mode.

Similarly, it is only practical to do this in one language at a time. In an ideal mobile world, I could speak all my languages to Siri and it would intelligently recognise and respond in the appropriate language. Alas, we are not quite there yet.

If you work around these stumbling blocks, you can eke a great deal of useful language practice from switching your Voice Assistant language. In fact, I’ve grown rather fond of mine; I might just leave it switched to Norwegian for the foreseeable!

At the heart of it is this: using a Voice Assistant in your foreign language is, quite simply, good fun. It is a moment of show-offy, giddy pride when family and friends hear me address Siri in a foreign language, for example. It is a badge of honour, a little show of skill that can boost motivation. And that is certainly worth the effort.

Modal verbs can lend colour to your speech (image from freeimages.com)

À la modal : how these little nuancing verbs can fix your fluency

I have a nerdish love of verbs. For me, it’s where it all comes together in language. They are sentence glue. Conjugate them, and you can hang the rest of the sentence from them like on the branches of a tree. But there is a small group of verbs that always make me feel more expressive and fluent in a foreign language. They are the modal verbs.

You have likely already come across them in your studies. In English, they are words like canmustshould and so on. They are often irregular, and very high-frequency in the languages they belong to.

So why are they such a boost to fluency?

À la modal verbs

The magic of modals is that they nuance what you say. They decorate your sentence tree with colourful subtexts. Technically speaking, they layer your speech with modality – the ability to express situations which may not be real.

Concretely, modals are verbs that imply intention, possibility, obligation and probability. These are all complex nuances, but very quick and easy to apply succinctly with modals. And they fix a common frustration of beginners: boring conversation syndrome.

It is a common beginner language learner experience to feel limited by straightforward, indicative tenses. You quickly frustrate yourself in speaking if all you can do is make statements of fact. I am a studentI went to a concertwe have a dog, we travelled to Spain. Hmm – boring!

Modal verbs change that up. They colour the story. Suddenly, I could be a studentI wanted to go to a concertwe should have a dogwe might go to Spain. Beyond bare statements of fact, you are now expressing hopes, wishes, dreams, judgements, assessments and more. From dull zero to language learning hero through the addition of just a few words.

Letting you off lightly

Modal verbs can actually make your language easier to speak, as well. Since they usually connect to the bare infinitive – or most basic form – of another verb, they give you a wee respite from conjugating it.

For example, let’s take the Spanish verb phrase:

ir al colegio (to go to school)

Ir is a notoriously irregular verb. If you are fumbling for its past form when trying to say I went to school, then there is a simpler way: modal verbs and constructions. If you have memorised the simple past of ‘had to’ in Spanish, it becomes easy:

tuve que ir al colegio (I had to go to school)

That tuve que construction just saved you if you had forgotten the form fui (I went). Fair enough, the meaning is subtly different – you are expressing obligation here instead. But it is close enough to express the original indicative sense that you went to school too. A neat trick.

The great thing with this tactic is that just learning a couple of conjugated forms of modal verbs can go a long way. You need only learn a few key forms at first. Perhaps the first person present and past forms (I mustI had toI canI could and so on) are the most immediately useful for conversation. Then, simply clip on whole verb phrases to the end – no conjugation required. An instance fluency boost!

To continue the metaphor of the verb as the trunk of a tree, modal verbs are big, sturdy branches that can comfortably take the weight of even more verbs.

More bang for your buck

Let’s face it – some words are more useful than others.

For a start, modal verbs are common, high-frequency words that you will regularly come across. A good benchmark is where a word appears on a frequency list of words in the target language. Anything in the top hundred suggests that you will be exposed to the word all the time. Spanish puede (can) features in its top sixty, as does its French counterpart peut and German kann.

But something makes them even more useful that just being frequent. They are often semantically overloaded, too, meaning that they have multiple meanings depending on context.

Just take must in English. It can be a bare indicator of obligation, as in we must go. But it can also express the speaker’s assessment of high probability, as in they must be the new students. Many languages mirror this usage, such as the Spanish debe de estar cansado (he must be tired).

Consulting any good reference on your target language should throw up scores of examples. This Wiktionary page on the Spanish deber (must) gives a good overview of that word, for instance. After checking out constructions there, you can then hunt down sample sentences containing them on a service like Tatoeba.

Overloaded words are excellent news for squeezing lots of language out of a little learning. You get even greater mileage than normal out of each modal verb mastered.

Modal Verbs : fast-tracking fluency

Convinced by these little nuancing fluency helpers? The facts speak for themselves. Modal verbs are high frequency words. There are just a few to learn. They have dense, multiple meanings. And they make speaking easier when you are still grappling with general verb conjugation. They are the perfect fodder for a bit of language hacking towards fast fluency.

Could it be magic? It just might. Say yes we can and enjoy pumping up your fluency with modal verbs!