The best cure for digital fatigue - paper and pen. Image from freeimages.com.

Digital fatigue in language learning: blending old school for a perfect mix

I’ve always been a big champion of digital platforms for language learning. It’s my passion – and my job. So it’s with perhaps with some sense of defeat that I admit to suffering from a bit of digital fatigue of late.

Maybe I’ve been overdoing it on Duolingo? Or perhaps the multilingual Anki decks have been a bit overwhelming. Either way, I felt the need to seek a bit of real-world, analogue solace this week.

Perhaps you’ve felt it too. That cloudy, foggy-headed feeling when you realise you’ve been idly staring at a screen for too long without actually achieving much. You wouldn’t be alone, given that 41% of respondents in one recent study report that same weariness with tech.

There is something energy-sapping about the sheer passivity of digital device usage and its hypnotic draw. For all the great things digital tools offer language learners, they are beasts that need control – or to risk being controlled by. It is no surprise that the great minds behind tech giants raised their children completely tech-free.

As much as I love the idea of adopting a wholly paperless routine, there was nothing for it. I had to prescribe myself a bit of old school.

Going old school

There is little else more old school in language learning than the trusty text book. Getting caught up in online learning means you can often miss developments and new releases in the book world, and there are some fantastic recent additions to the language shelf to give your eyes some screen-rest.

Teach Yourself books, for example, have played a winner with their recent Tutor series. Thoroughly offline – there aren’t even any digital versions at this point – they are modern, up-to-date grammar primers for A2-B2 level, packed with relevant examples and useful drills. I must admit to becoming a little addicted to them: four and counting!

Books are, of course, a joy. Being a bibliophile is almost part and parcel of being a language lover, so chances are you already have a wealth of material sitting on the shelf without rushing out to buy more.

Unless you have an e-reader with some novel e-ink features for a natural feel, spending time with physical tomes is the perfect way to beat digital fatigue and reconnect with offline learning. (Just don’t spend too long online ordering them – or even better, visit your local bookshop!)

You can work with these paper resources while still preserving the offline benefits. One combination approach I talked about recently was forward loading vocabulary from your books to your digital vocabulary tools. That two-track blend keeps you in those paper pages while leveraging the power of the app, too.

But what when it comes to written work?

Getting touchy-feely with words

Working a lot on my laptop, I’m used to using Evernote for language learning notes and other tasks. It’s simple, cloud-based and has lots of extra features like tagging (a lifeline if you make reams and reams of notes like I do).

That said, even amazing tools like this contribute to soul-sapping digital fatigue after a while. And when electronic note-taking is too much, there’s an obvious solution: good old pen and paper.

Physical writing, be it vocabulary lists, writing exercises or whatever other language tasks you choose, has a kinaesthetic, touchy-feely element that tapping on a device simply lacks. There is a level of preparation and care involved that makes it a wholly more active way to work with words.

Doing something physical with your material helps increase both your level of involvement and pride in it, both excellent get-it-to-stick tricks. And that’s not to mention the fun of enjoying lots of lovely stationery, too!

Old-school but environment-kind

Even still, nothing is perfect. Storage, paper waste, the general accumulation of stuff – the digital world promised us an escape from these downsides. Fortunately, there are ways to blend offline and online approaches so we get the best of both worlds.

An environmentally-friendly way to chug through reams of paper is simply to snap your handwritten notes into an app like Evernote or Scanner Pro, then recycle the originals responsibly.

Lately, though, there’s been a great deal of buzz around reusable notebooks on social media. Rocketbook and Infinitebook are leading the way for a new breed of paper: the kind you write on again, and again… and again.

Not only are they refreshed via a number of often novel methods (microwaving being the most out-there), but they contain crossover features that help them interface seamlessly with the digital world. Some pages, for example, contain checkboxes for the cloud platform of choice for storage (Dropbox, Google Drive and so on). Snap your notes with the dedicated app, and they will whizz across to their destination, safe and sound and without any bother.

Though affordable, these are something of a medium investment, costing more than even the average language text book. On the other hand, you may well save a fortune on traditional pads in the long run.

Fancy a cheaper option to Rocketbook and other pricey (but equally impressive) options? A mini-whiteboard can give you a place to scribble, scan and scrub at a fraction of the price.

 

Digital dream: still alive but reimagined

So, as a digital renaissance kid truly sold on the idea of a paperless future, maybe I am a little disillusioned at the reality. The idea of carrying my whole world – educational and otherwise – around on a 9″ tablet is looking a little jaded. But a blended approach really does save the day, pulling together the best of both worlds.

Ultimately, variety is the order of the day to keep language learning fresh. And if you only stick to digital platforms, you miss out on the wealth of resources the offline world has to offer.

Don’t feel defeat when digital fatigue sets in, like I did. Rediscover the offline to reignite your joy of learning. Then beat app anxiety without ditching it completely by blending your worlds!

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!

A short study break may do your brain the world of good between the book marathons. (Image from freeimages.com)

The returner learner effect : how a study break can be a language learning boost

Brains are mysterious things. Sometimes, they seem to display most counter-intuitive behaviour. Just take the study break, for example. Give yourself a few months off a language, and you might expect to be a bit rusty as a returner learner. But sometimes, on your return, you get that joyful feeling that it never went away. And somehow, could it feel even more solid than before?

It’s more common than you think.

Budding polyglots, by their nature, experience the returner learner effect a lot. Since it is rarely a good idea to study more that one or two languages at once, there can be stretches where any language aficionado is not actively working on several of them. Often, there may not even be opportunities to speak them regularly.

Some maintenance is essential, of course. And we can keep things ticking over with a weekly tactical schedule that at least gives a nod to all of our projects. But it is almost inevitable that some languages will be put into a deeper sleep than others.

Software-Switching

Never fear. I actually like to think that we are made to use our brains like this. Short-term, or working memory, for example, can only hold around seven items for processing at any one time. On a longer-term scale, learnt skills, like languages, are also processing-hungry programs that cannot all be run altogether at full capacity at the same time.

Computer analogies, although not always perfect, can be neatly apt ways to think about the brain. Just today, this nostalgic thread about early 1980’s, disk-based computing bubbled up into my Twitter timeline. What better metaphor for the nature of our active and passive languages? There is certainly an element of software-switching going on when I prepare to ‘load up’ a language I haven’t used in a while. Although it’s not quite “Insert Russian: Disk 4”, it can feel like some gear-shifting is required to switch a language back on.

Let sleeping languages lie…

For various reasons, I had parked my Norwegian in the cerebral software archive a few months ago. For one thing, I had enjoyed a couple of trips to Oslo already by last Summer. Now it was time for other plans, other countries, and other languages – at least for a while.

Not only that, but the perennial polyglot itch was making itself felt. I wanted to try new things, and reach new levels with my other projects. My Norwegian was at a decent level; it could withstand a little rest.

Of course, rest should never mean oblivion. Language skills are precious, and it is essential to have a maintenance plan for all of them. Optioned Anki decks is a favoured way to finely control the maintenance all of those you care about keeping, for example. In this way, maintenance can chug along in a fairly low-key fashion.

As long as you do something, those disks should only require occasional dusting to stay serviceable.

And so it was in my case. Along with occasionally reading the news at nrk.no, I kept my Norwegian on a low boil since the end of last Summer.

…until their day comes again

Ultimately, the time comes when sleeping languages grow impatient for the limelight again. My own travel plans had finally come full circle again, settling on Norway (a more irresistible return destination after each trip, believe me – it’s never too long before that scenery exerts its pull!). The time seemed right to dust off the Bokmål.

When bringing your languages out of storage, you need a strategy – something to help load those programs back into memory.

My own, personal favourite is to kickstart passive use via a podcast blitz.

I chose my old favourite Norwegian podcast to stage a return: the fantastic Språkteigen by NRK. It is a real gem for language lovers with a bit of norsk.

In fact, I had been putting off listening to the show for a while. There was a fear that I might have slipped back further than I thought. Would I understand a single word? Should I have been spending more time on Norwegian maintenance? To ease myself back in gently, I selected a low-pressure time – listening on the treadmill at the gym – and clicked play on the programme.

I had nothing to worry about. I was hooked by the subject matter from the first few lines, and zoned right back into it as I listened and ran. By the end, I’d jogged for thirty minutes without realising it, and felt boosted by how much I understood.

It almost seemed like I could understand more than back when I was actively studying.

The choice of material is crucial, of course. I chose something I’d missed listening to.  I wanted to understand.

The returner learner effect

That feeling of being better after a break is down to a number of elements:

Their effects are felt most keenly just in those days when we return to the language. If you select your return material wisely, you can maximise the motivation that provides. Feed on the renewed confidence. In a subject area that demands so much self-confidence compared to others, it is a rare chance to say: yes, I am not bad at this at all!

Building back active production

Of course, a dose of realism is also required. In my case, I had spent six months not speaking Norwegian at all. The extent of my Bokmål use had been completely passive. While the ‘background task’ effect of the brain may well benefit my active production of Norwegian in the long run, I must still acknowledge that work needs to be done to build back my speaking confidence.

But the lesson here is that all those hours of hard work were not in vain. The brain has the learner’s back. In those quiet months, it works on, patiently distilling that mass of material into a solid skill – one that was ready to load back into memory when needed.

Like all effects, the post-study-break boost wanes as the reality of the study regime kicks in again. You will feel challenged once more. That said, it would be worrying not to feel that way. To make a comparison to working out at the gym, it is often when the muscles feel most taxed that the builder makes the greatest gains.

However transitory the returner learner effect, seize upon it to ride a fresh wave of confidence after a study break. Maximise it by choosing media that you know you will respond positively to. Let it reassure you that your brain is on your side, whatever tricky conundrums language learning throws your way!

A new calendar means new language learning resolutions. But how to stick to them? (Image from freeimages.com)

Five Ways to Stick to Language Learning Resolutions

We are well into the New Year now, and – if you are like me – you probably have a list of language learning resolutions as long as your arm. But doesn’t cold, damp January feel like the longest and hardest month for keeping to them? It can seem far too easy to get discouraged.

Never fear: here are some sure-fire tips for staying on track (or getting back onto it). 2019, we are coming for you!

Set reminders

Set your watch for timely language learning

If it’s a case of simply not remembering to stick to your routines, you can employ a little digital help. Setting training reminders on your devices is one of the easiest ways to enforce a new routine and begin habit-building.

My to-do and reminder app of choice is Wunderlist, which is both free, and goes far beyond a simple reminders app. For instance, you can subdivide your lists of tasks into separate sections, like simply ‘Languages’, or even one for each of your languages. It also allows for repeated tasks, which are perfect for daily and weekly learning tactics. Ticking these off regularly creates a real sense of ongoing achievement.

If you are a fan of Evernote (a fantastic, yet unsung hero of language learning!), you can use its reminder feature to similar effect. I use Evernote for longer-term planning, and setting reminders for regular reviews of planning documents is a resolution-saver.

Also worth checking out are Coach.me, Streaks and, of course, your plain old smartphone to-do / calendar apps. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best.

Tie your language learning to other habits

Our lives are already complex webs of routine and habit. Leverage that by linking your new, desired behaviours into what you already do.

Jogging is a routine you can easily tie new language learning habits to. (Image from freeimages.com)

Regular walk? Use that to listen to target language material like podcasts. Regular commute? Make sure you have plenty of foreign language Netflix downloaded for offline viewing. Spare minutes after getting ready for work? Do your 5-10 minutes of Anki or Duolingo.

You can find multiple points where your existing habits can anchor your new ones, too. With apps, taking advantage of a variety of platforms gives you multiple entry points in your daily routine. I use the Anki app on my bus and train journeys, but open up the desktop app for a quick revise before I start work at my desk.

If apps feature heavily in your language learning life, try chaining them. Piggy-back your new platforms on the back of an already well-established one. Already doing 5-10 minutes of Duolingo every day? Try coupling your Verb Blitz or Memrise right onto the tail end of that.

Enlist help

Strength in numbers - enlist the help of others in your language learning resolutions. (Image from freeimages.com)

Strength in numbers!

Personal goals shouldn’t be a lonely business. Do you have friends or relatives who can lend a hand? A supportive partner to remind you to do your daily Anki every day could work wonders! Tell them how much it means to you to succeed in your language learning goals. Getting them on board will be an invaluable source of encouragement.

A popular concept in peer coaching is the accountability partner. This is a friend or colleague you regularly meet up with to compare progress on goals. Each participant’s goals can be quite disparate, as the function of the accountability partner is to act as a sounding board and motivator. All you need is someone else who is also working on self-improvement goals for 2019.

You can also help others to learn while helping your own goals along, too. We learn, and consolidate previous learning, through teaching. Even sharing an overview of recent progress with others can help you to reflect critically on your own learning. With that in mind, why not commit to sharing progress in your resolutions with your nearest and dearest?

It’s also worth mentioning the immense value a professional coach can offer, if you really want to bring in the cavalry. I circumnavigated some sticky learning impasses in 2018 thanks to working on my goals with a coach.

Get right back on that horse!

Controversial fact: the “New Year” in “New Year’s Resolutions” is the least important part of all!

The truth is that New Year’s Resolutions are lent a bit of artificial magic by dint of that special date of 1st January.

If you have slipped up, there is no need to write off your goals until the next year. The best time to start again is always now. As with a diet, saying “I’ll be good from tomorrow” is a delay tactic that you should never fall for.

It might help to regauge how you divide up your blocks of time. Let’s face it: an entire year is a very long stretch for goal planning. Instead, productivity writer Brian Moran suggests a 12-week cycle, which has worked a treat for me.

Don’t burn out too soon

Finally, make sure to keep yourself mentally and physically in kilter. Pushing yourself too hard means burning out, or worse, coming to resent your own resolutions.

Learning to build pace and pause into your routine is as important a skill as fully-fledged language learning work. Too much rigidity can stifle the most enthusiastic learner – aim for self-kindness by allowing for fluidity in your plan.

Regular audits of your progress help, too. It may be that you set the bar too high for January 1st. Be honest with yourself. Can you scale back slightly before stepping up again later? Better to do that, than give up completely.

A recent example from my own 2019 challenges illustrates the need to be flexible, and revisit / reformulate resolutions on a regular basis. One ambitious target I set myself was to make at least one overseas trip a month to practise my languages. Now, that might sound difficult, but it is quite possible on a budget; there are a number of tools to source cheap flight and hotel dates. But, alas, at the mercy of dynamic travel pricing, it looked like I might miss that target in the very first month.

Not to worry: I’ve reformulated that goal as: make trips to at least 12 different overseas destinations in 2019. Resolution rescued!

Whatever your goals for 2019, let these guiding principles keep you on track for language learning success. Here’s to a fruitful twelve months… and beyond!

Variety adds a bit of a colour to your learning. (Image from freeimages.com)

Five ways to maintain variety in your language learning

Routine and regularity are cornerstones of language learning. But if your structure is too rigid, you might find yourself tiring of the same old, same old. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to work some variety into your language learning plan to keep things fresh.

There is evidence to suggest that a more varied learning approach might prevent context-bound recall. One stock study of Psych 101 classes shows how we remember more when we are in the same environment the material was learnt in. Of course, students can leverage that when preparing for exams. But perhaps an even better approach would be to employ variety to avoid binding your knowledge to specific circumstances. After all, you want those words to flow wherever you are, right?

Let’s take an example to illustrate the point. Do you, like me, sometimes find it easy to recall a word in Duolingo, phone in hand, but struggle to dredge it from memory in conversation? It could be that your mental record of that vocab item is bound to that specific context of using an app on your phone.

So, variety is key. But how can you hit that magic balance between routine and variation to free your recall?

Different platforms

We all have those favourite e-learning tools that we turn to first. Anki, Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise count amongst the most popular quick fixes that we can all build into our daily language task list. And they are excellent at their job; there is no need to use any of these favourites any less.

But instead, we can vary how – or, more specifically, on what – we use them.

Many language learning platforms like these are multi-platform, so you can play them on a variety of devices. Duolingo, for example, can be played on your phone, tablet or on any computer via the browser. Anki, Babbel and Memrise, too, can be played on a device or on the web.

If you always play on the same platform, change that up a little. Work through your Anki cards on the computer one day, and on your phone the next. Vary when you access it, too. Sometimes I will bring up Anki on my laptop during the day, for example, in a few spare moments between work tasks. At other times, I’ll use the mobile app while I’m waiting for a train.

Don’t always make your language app work a phone-in-hand learning session. 

Different times, different places

Just as simple a route to varying your routine is to change your environment. Mobile apps make this easy – you can learn anywhere you like. But even book-based learning can be mobile if you always make sure you have some course material in your bag wherever you go. If you find yourself with a spare half an hour in town, find a coffee shop and settle down with a chapter and a cappuccino.

Flexible resources help here, too. You may have both the paper and PDF / electronic versions of a resource, and these lend themselves to different environments. Leverage that by alternating between them, studying them at different times and in different places. The very fact that you can study the same resource in different formats is a boost to variety in itself.

Keep your scenery constantly changing, and your brain will not have a chance to bind recall with context-based clues.

Veer off course

If you doggedly stick to exactly the same learning materials every day, every week, then feelings of stagnation soon creep in. Pushing through the same course for weeks on end can seem like wading through sludge.

What to do when the beaten path gets muddy? Take a detour. You can achieve this in language learning by having a couple of courses on the go simultaneously. For instance, you might choose to work through both Colloquial French and Teach Yourself Complete French as part of your plan. Throw the new (and excellent) French Tutor into the mix too, and you have a range of course materials you can switch tracks between. Bored of one? Switch to the other for a lesson or two.

The joy of this is not limited just to the change of paper scenery. Different books explain things in different ways. And, given a range of explanations for the same grammatical rules, we often understand better.

It’s like viewing an object from several aspects. Together, those different views give you a much clearer mental picture of the object.

Dare to be non-linear

On that tack, whoever decreed that everybody must work through materials from cover to cover, never deviating from the plan? Naturally, course materials are written with linear progression in mind, and you need some structure. But it doesn’t need to be done to the letter.

From time to time, it does not hurt to jump forward a little. It can be quite exciting to sneak a peek at later chapters of a book. It’s like stealing a glance at what is to come in your learning journey. It reminds me a little of finding out what the ‘big kids’ are doing in the years above you at school. There’s a delicious anticipation about it, a sense of “so this is what I’ll be doing when I’m even better at my language!”.

In many ways, however, it is a completely legitimate way of pre-preparing yourself to learn future material even more effectively. By breaking away and racing ahead, even just for a moment, your brain can get a little head start. And, by the time you come to study that material for real, who knows what subconscious cogitations it has been subject to? You will positively run with it!

Back to the future

Breaking away from the linear is as valid for electronic resources as it is for book-based courses. For example, Duolingo offers more than just the familiar step-by-step, topic-based tree. It also features a Practise section, which selects a random set of words and phrases to test you on. There is no way to tell which topic Duolingo will throw at you, except that it will be one you have studied.

Here, it is about jumping backwards rather than forwards, offering an opportunity to strengthen material you have already covered. Rather than choosing – and therefore expecting – a particular topic, you hand the choice over to the platform. How about that for a bit of unpredictability? Give that a whirl regularly, and your brain will benefit from handling more unexpected material.

In the wild

Our learning resources and plans, of course, necessarily represent a safe bubble of predictability. This is no surprise; nobody wants to be overwhelmed when they first start learning a foreign language.

However, you can carefully stage-manage your gradual release into the wild of everyday language use. After all, there is no greater variety than the real world. A mindful choice of media materials like podcasts and news sites can be a safe dip of the toe into the waters of real-life language.

For a once-weekly dose of current affairs variety, I like the News In Slow … range for French, German, Italian and French students. The podcasts are free, although you can subscribe for extra support resources too, if you prefer to layer some structure on top of that. The language is slow and simple enough to get the gist as a beginner, but current enough to feel relevant.

If your language is not amongst that list, you can often find news programmes in your target language by trawling national broadcaster and other media sites. The Icelandic television company RÚV, for instance, has a daily news programme for kids called Krakkafréttir. And for Norwegian (Bokmål), learners can take advantage of KlarTale.no, a news resource aimed at readers with dyslexia and speakers of Norwegian as a second language.

As always with authentic texts, a bit of Googling will go a long way. I recently unearthed a treasure trove of simplified Icelandic texts intended for school learners. The authors probably never realised how useful they would be for those learning Icelandic overseas!

Gradual exposure to real-world, real-time resources will definitely keep your linguist brain on its toes.

Mix it up, max it out

I hope that the above points convince you that a combined structure-variety approach will maximise what you get out of your learning time. We are not learning robots, and mechanical, unchanging and unbending routine will do no human being much good in the long run.

Follow the variety principle, and keep your learning fresh!

Language learning during busy times can be a bit of a blur. (Image from freeimages.com)

Give yourself a break! Fluid language learning planning for busy people

How was your November? Mine was busy. Very busy. As fulfilling and rewarding as they usually are, work, family and friends ended up filling nearly every minute. And, if you’re like me, you’ll find that life, in these busier moments, can knock your language learning right off course.

Tools for staying the course

Now, there are plenty of great ways to try and keep on course. My personal go-to tool for weekly language learning planning is Evernote. I take time each Sunday to plan in tasks for the next week, basing them on my progress over the previous seven days. During the week, Evernote acts as the brain centre for my learning.

In our busier moments, however, our plans can become fixed and rigid. And that rigidity can sometimes overwhelm us.

Over a quiet Summer, your 20-point weekly to-do plan might be a piece of cake. But when life gets hectic, you might find yourself ticking off just a quarter of your tasks. That, quite simply, is demotivating. You feel like a failure, not coping, struggling to fit in your learning. Confidence knocked, you slowly slide into achieving less and less.

The answer? You need to accept that you are not a machine operating at a constant level of capacity, and add some fluidity to your planning.

Your capacity is not constant, but varying

In my case, I’d fallen into a particularly poor habit that was so far from self-care. Tired after a long week, and in total chill-mode on a Sunday evening, I stopped sparing the time to evaluate my previous week and plan the next. Instead, I simply copied and pasted the previous week’s plan to the next week, blanking off the ticks. An unthinking carbon copy.

The problem here is that every week is different. Expecting to take on an equal amount of labour at a constant rate is, frankly, putting an unreasonable demand on yourself. Our capacity is finite, and life’s demands are always changing. Pretty soon, I found myself filling in fewer and fewer of those ticks from a copied list that was based on my capacity months ago, and not today.

It was a shortcut, but a mindless, inappropriate one. It was actually costing me progress in the long run.

My engine was overheating, and I needed cooling down.

Strip off to cool down

First things first: in this situation, you need to force a break. You need to get off the ride in order to cool down and catch your breath back. It’s perhaps obvious, but as with many obvious things, sometimes we need to be reminded about them.

The easiest way to do this is simply to strip your weekly tasks right down to a bare minimum. What this bare minimum is, is up to you. It should consist of the things that are most important to you in your language learning, but things you can comfortably do in ’emergency mode’, without exacting too much energy from yourself.

Be honest about what you can realistically do right now, given your current circumstances and life events. In my case, my skeleton language learning plan was stripped down to simply these two tasks:

Now, that was quite a step down from the cascade of weekly tasks up to that point. Gone – for now – was the pressure to fit in X podcasts, Y chapters of a book, Z iTalki lessons. Instead, I recognised my need for space, and committed to maybe 15-20 minutes of maintenance every day instead of the frantic daily hamster wheel.

Back to full throttle – with care

Maintain this level for a week or two – just long enough to gather your thoughts and reset your pace. Then, with a constant eye on your energy levels, start adding tasks back in every week. Stay mindful of stress, and remain realistic about what you can do if things are still manic in the rest of your life. With a little care, you can work your way back to full throttle in a matter of weeks.

It can be hard acknowledging that you need some breathing space. But it is a vital skill to master in avoiding burnout. Self-honesty is worth its weight in gold for the self-powered learner. It should certainly count in your arsenal of language learning tricks, just as much as memorisation techniques and lesson preparation. The fluid planning that comes from it will pay dividends compared to a rigid, unyielding taskmaster approach.

The coastline of Banff, Aberdeenshire

Finding a Language Retreat : Peace and Quiet to Reset Your Learning

Do you have a retreat? A place to escape to, just you and your books? Maybe you have a few places that earn that title.

I’ve spent a bit of time at one of mine this week. And it has reminded me of the importance of pace, pause and a change of scenery in learning.

Macduff, viewed from Banff, Aberdeenshire - a special place, and a language learning retreat of mine

Macduff, viewed from Banff, Aberdeenshire – a special place, and a language learning retreat of mine

Sometimes, our special places are not always those we choose for ourselves. Instead, life moves in mysterious directions, and we end up drifting along its currents to surprising destinations. So it is with Banffshire for me.

A born Midlander, family, friends and work have conspired together to move my centre of gravity to Scotland over the years. Specifically, to Edinburgh, a wonderful place to come to rest. But Banff and Macduff, nestling in a far-flung corner of Northeast Scotland, have exerted an ever-stronger draw in recent years.

Thanks in part to family circumstances, and partly to their natural beauty, Banff and Macduff have become important pins on my personal map.

As a Midlander, of course, the sea was always something special. Being landlocked, it was only on long trips to the faraway coastline that we ever managed to see it. Perhaps, then, that is why Banff and Macduff have captured my affection and imagination.

Reset with a Learning retreat

Why, then, are our special places so useful as learners?

Well, if you are anything like me, life tends to pull you in all directions. Work, social life, family commitments are fulfilling, but take an energy hit on the body and soul. Somewhere in between it all, we need to fit our passion for language learning. It can sometimes feel, though, that languages are playing second fiddle.

Sometimes, we just need a reset. And a retreat can do that.

Leaving behind the to-and-fro for a while, travelling light (apart from your trusty books, of course), can be a tonic. For a start, it’s a chance to focus on what you love most – learning languages. Calendar cleared, long journey ahead of you, you can get down to study as soon as your train / bus / plane leaves. It’s time to focus on what you learn, how you learn, cocooned by a peace and quiet that rarely comes in the day-to-day.

Choose your landscapes carefully, and they can really inspire, too. For me, Icelandic is an important, currently active language project. And there is something very Nordic about the sweeping seascapes and weather-battered heath on the journey up north to my selected spot of Scotland. Reading the Icelandic sagas (albeit in simplified form) and glancing through the train window, it is engrossing to imagine the action taking place in settings not unsimilar. It does not hurt that some of the stories actually wind their way through Scottish soil on the way, too.

A language retreat can connect your subject to the whole world around you, as well as free you from distractions in order to refocus on learning. Near or far, find and nurture that special place for you and your books. Your brain / blood pressure will thank you for it.

Hit upon the right system and learn languages like clockwork. (From freeimages.com)

Systematise your reading with Learning With Texts (LWT)

System can be everything in language learning. This was the thrust of an excellent talk by Lýdia Machová of Language Mentoring, which I was lucky enough to catch at the recent Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana. As chance would have it, a chat with a conference friend and subsequent recommendation for a piece of software – Learning With Texts – came together to give my own system a real shot in the arm.

As a lover of structure, I wasn’t doing too badly in terms of system and regularity in my learning. Tools like Evernote help me plan my language week around repeated tasks, for example. Likewise, language learning apps with a streak feature, like Duolingo, add to the regular-as-clockwork, systematic approach.

Feeling fuzzy

However, some of my routine tasks had a bit of a nebulous, woolly feel to them. They were a little fuzzy. Check boxes like “Spend half an hour with Book X/Y/Z” are not particularly rigid as system-builders. As such, it was sometimes difficult to monitor what I was actually doing in my foreign languages.

Now, what I loved about Lydia’s talk was the specificity of the sample systems she presented. In particular, one of these broke weekly to-do tasks down into the four skill areas of reading, writing, listening and speaking. These will be extremely familiar to UK language teachers. Of course, it is not the only way to granulate language learning. But it does offer a way to focus on particular areas of profess, rather than more general tasks like “do a chapter of a book”.

Reading resonated with me as a key area to systematise. Like many polyglot friends, I love reading in my foreign languages. But sometimes, my approach is a little haphazard. I’ll read an article here, a chapter of a book there, an easy reader in between. I was benefitting, of course, but couldn’t say exactly how (or how much). Or, more importantly, I couldn’t see if there was room for improvement or harder work. I needed a system! Lydia’s talk confirmed this, but how would I systematise my reading?

Mining fellow minds

The great thing about specialist and enthusiast conferences is the confluence of similar minds. Through socialising with others, we learn as much from fellow attendees as from speakers. And so, it was through a chance encounter with a new conference friend that I learnt about Learning With Texts, a free, browser-based software for learning foreign languages through reading.

If you have come across the Lingq website before, the concept behind Learning With Texts will be very familiar. The interface presents a foreign text for reading. All words are clickable, and start off blue for ‘not met before’. As you read, you either click to deselect the word if you already understand it, or look it up and add it to your bank of new vocabulary. As such, it is both a support for reading, and a tool for vocabulary mining. A nifty Anki export feature complements the latter.

Using Learning With Texts to read an article in Icelandic

Using Learning With Texts to read an article in Icelandic

Instantly, my fuzzy ‘read something in the target language’ has become a lot more concrete. Now, for example, I can set myself the task to use LWT daily to read the top article on news site mbl.is. From the fuzz rises my system!

Fiddly but fun

It might all sound a little too easy to be true. And, true to life, it is at times a less than perfectly smooth journey, although your perseverance pays off.

The particular rub with Learning With Texts is its slightly tricky installation process. Although it is browser-based, it needs to be set up on a local server, which many non-tech specialists will not be familiar with. It’s not a huge stretch to follow the step-by-step instructions on the Learning With Texts site, but it might be advisable to enlist a techie’s help if you are completely unfamiliar with servers and such like. In my case, I am running it on the pre-installed Apache server on Mac OS, which means there was no extra step to install a local server package first.

After initial setup, the interface is quirky, but fairly intuitive after some poking and playing. Once you’ve figured out how to add dictionaries for your languages, you can start adding and reading the texts of your choice. It’s not a perfect or foolproof system – I experiences a couple of issues with character encoding and certain dictionary sites, for example. This seems due to some sites not using UTF-8 (a character encoding format with support for multiple alphabets and characters with diacritics). On the whole, though, you can work around these issues with a bit of trial and error.

For all its foibles, it’s a fun process when things are up and running. It feels very hands-on, full-on language geek, if you like that kind of thing. (I do!) Thanks to my fellow conference-goer Ondřej for bringing it to my attention. My system got just that little bit better.

A vast array of colourful baubles, as varied as your own mass sentences can be. (Picture from freeimages.com)

DIY mass sentences technique : self-made repetitions for grammar mastery

I’ve talked about the utility of mass sentences previously, including the vast resources at Tatoeba and Glossika. It can be particularly helpful in drilling language patterns through high exposure to model content and multiple repetitions. However, it’s possible to replicate some of that power under your own steam.

I got the following idea from a fellow member of a Facebook language challenge group I’m a member of. Now, his particular sticking point was German cases, but the idea lends itself to all sorts of material you need to master.

With the help of his teacher, he created a set of ‘model sentences’ as a corpus of focussed learning material. In this case, the sentences chosen covered all of the permutations for cases with articles, for example. Fellow Germanists will recognise the challenge of learning those as a beginner! For instance, this set could include:

  • Der Hund kommt. (The dog is coming – nominative)
  • Ich sehe den Hund. (I see the dog – accusative)
  • Ich gebe dem Hund ein Eis. (I give the dog an ice cream – dative)
  • Das ist der Korb des Hundes. (That is the dog’s basket – genitive)

They can be much more complex than that, of course, including adjectives, prepositions that take certain cases, and so on. The important thing is that they are clear examples of the grammatical points the learner is finding tricky.

Drilling your mass sentences

Once the set is complete, the sentences can be added to your drill tool of choice. That is, unsurprisingly, Anki in most of our cases in the group (it helps having an Anki wizard as the group founder!). You could equally well use a tool like Quizlet or Educandy.

Of course, they can be a ‘mass’ as you like, incorporating from just a few sentences to hundreds. But you should have at least one sentence per grammatical point you’re trying to drill. The only golden rule is to check your sentences with a teacher before you start to drill them. You want an error-free collection of source material!

Conquering the foothills

Since I am currently learning Icelandic, I had plenty of opportunity to put this into practice recently. Four cases, definite and indefinite forms of nouns and both strong and weak adjective declensions had me pretty much stumped for months. The perfect testing ground.

Having started with my sentence stash a couple of weeks ago, I can already see significant progress. Finally, I’m latching on to some of the patterns thanks to repetition. Somehow, those cases are sticking!

Example of DIY mass sentences in Icelandic drilling masculine nouns in the dative case.

Sample of my DIY mass sentences in Icelandic (here, drilling masculine nouns and adjectives in the dative case).

Like all techniques, naturally, it is no magic pill. It can be a gradual and sometimes uneven process, for many reasons. For one thing, our brains are attracted to certain elements first and foremost, partly due to links to other material we’ve happened across. Mine particularly likes the masculine indefinite accusative adjective ending, which reminds me of the German -en ending (German is my first and strongest foreign language). The Icelandic nýr > nýjan (new) maps pretty neatly onto the German neu > neuen.

Whatever the cause, though, that tiny victory is a little foothill of the vast mountain range of Icelandic that I’ve managed to conquer. I now proudly seize upon any chance to use masculine nouns in the accusative when chatting to my tutors! (I know – I will have to move on from that habit at some point…) With a bit more mass sentences graft, I’m hoping that they all start to fall into place soon.

If you’ve not done so before, have a go at making your own sentence corpus to learn from. Incorporate your own most fiendishly difficult grammatical sticking points. You can reap some of the benefits of a mass sentences technique without relying on third-party word banks or subscription sites. Not only that, but you’ll increase your recall power through this hands-on approach to making your own materials.

Adding a language is like adding another colour to your communication swatch! (Picture from freeimages.com)

Language learning, fast and slow : one-track hack or polyglot glutton?

As a language learning addict, the idea of having multiple projects on the go at the same time is always appealing. But is there a sensible maximum to the number of languages we should be studying simultaneously?

The topic came up on a very interesting recent Hangout with Benny Lewis, the mastermind behind the Add One Challenge. Quite rightly, the general advice was that progress will be faster if you focus on one at a time. It stands to reason – we only have a finite mental capacity, and if you want to see results fast, you should direct it all in one direction.

Learning: fast and slow

But there are two differing attitudes towards learning in competition, here. The key selling point to much of the language hacking approach is ‘results fast‘. There is nothing wrong with that. I have used it to great effect myself. Efficiency and speed are fantastic study skills to develop if you have particularly practical (or urgent) goals in language learning.

By contrast, there is also a much more gradual approach to languages. Instead of a focus on short-term working knowledge, it emphasises the joy of the learning process. It regards learning it as a gentler method of layering knowledge upon knowledge over time. It is about finding fun in the detail, revelling in the rules. Furthermore, the lower priority on speed means that it supports multiple language learning a little better, if that is what you want to do.

There is room for both of these methods in the same language learning life, of course. The learner can chop and change according to circumstance and need. Need working fluency for a trip? Choose the fast route. Greedy linguist who wants a taste of everything? The slowly-but-surely approach is an excellent option.

Back to school

After all, early experience of languages in school is frequently in the mould of the gradual grammar crammer. For example, at my own secondary school, all students studied French and German for their first two years. Later, when the time came to take our options, we selected the one language we wanted to continue with.

Practices are similar in other European schools, with Icelandic students learning English and Danish, for example, or German students learning English and Spanish. Learning a couple of languages at a time in your own time is no unusual feat – kids have been doing it for decades.

The more the better?

There is even an academic argument for adding multiple languages into your study routine. Closely related languages, for instance, can be part of a larger voyage of discovery, opening up a whole language family. The resulting bird’s eye view can give a truly deep understanding of each individual member of that family, as you begin to make connections and colour between the lines.

What’s more, human languages share particular characteristics, regardless of family. There are common, abstract concepts across them, like nouns, verbs, tenses, moods (although they may appear vastly different, and be given differing names and explanations). Experience with the mechanics and terminology in one tongue can support your understanding in the other(s).

With a bit of organisational panache and sensible separation, it’s quite possible to handle multiple language projects. As always with matters of the mind, though, avoiding burnout is paramount. Take care, and you can keep that long-term, polyglot passion a joy, rather than a drain. And there is no need to give up that lexical gluttony, if it floats your boat!

If a big draw of language learning is enjoying the process, does it necessarily matter how quickly you progress? As linguists, we have the tools for language learning, fast and slow. Employ – and enjoy – them both.

Sidenote: the title for this post was inspired by the utterly fascinating “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Read it for an insight into our truly two-track brains!