Two different copies of Teach Yourself Swedish, freshly arrived from eBay!

Luck of the eBay Draw

The stars aligned for me this week. Not one, but two 1990s copies of Teach Yourself Swedish arrived in my postbox. Used, super cheap, but both so pristine you’d think they’d never been removed from their original bookshop shelves. Winning the eBay language learning lottery!

Why two copies of Teach Yourself Swedish, you ask? Isn’t that just being greedy?

Well first, is there really such a thing as greed when it comes to books? Our love knows no bounds. (Note: it probably is possible to have too many books, but I’m not there yet.)

Secondly, they’re actually different books.

A Long Time Ago in a Language Learning Galaxy Far Away…

You see, Teach Yourself has been going for donkey’s years, and by the 80s and 90s, the company had accrued a whole back catalogue of vintage language learning titles. As I’ve said many a time before, older language learning material shouldn’t be written off – it’s solid, albeit usually more grammar-based learning, and often very inexpensive.

But clearly, things needed a refresh. So Teach Yourself set about recommissioning a lot of those old tomes with completely updated replacements. It started in the late 80s, with updated French, German, Italian and Spanish titles. At first, these appeared in the 80s blue style covers.

But, come the 90s, Teach Yourself went arty in glorious technicolour. The book covers positively exploded in shapes and colours. Many are things of beauty (at least to my geeky eye), and it’s one of the reasons I love collecting them.

The Double Life of TY Books

However, those books had a double life during the transition. Older courses saw reissues, but with the bright, shiny covers. One last hoorah before they were retired.

But then, their successors (or usurpers?) came along, in their shiny, new covers – sometimes the same ones as the old course! Teach Yourself Gaelic, for example, recycles the same wrap even as it transitions from the old Roderick MacKinnon course to the updated Boyd Robertson edition. You can only tell the newer edition from a big yellow New! box in the corner. (No, that text was never going to age well.)

This clearly isn’t the case with Teach Yourself Swedish. Both the R.J.McClean and Vera Croghan books have their own wonderful designs. But for all intents and purposes, they were both still new language books in the 90s.

It’s just one has a much older soul. And I love it all the more for it.

A pristine copy of Teach Yourself Swedish by R.J.McClean (1992)

A pristine copy of Teach Yourself Swedish by R.J.McClean (1992)

The eBay Bookseller Lottery

With the wonderful quality of these two titles from that crossover period of the early 90s, I clearly lucked out on the eBay wheel of fortune. Items from the eBay book giants are generally in great condition; some just require a bit more TLC than this pair.

Of course, you can’t tell the condition of books from eBay supersellers until they arrive. That’s part of the fun, of course. But it does lead to the occasional sigh of deflation, as one described as very good lands on your doormat in a rather more dishevelled state. That doesn’t happen too often, thankfully.

And it a couple of quid a pop, it’s a fun gamble!

Change may be accelerated by societal pressures.

Change, society and the language learner

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

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

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

Language reflects social change

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

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

Brave new world

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

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

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

Stay ahead of change

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

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

Be on the lookout

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

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

Actively build vocabulary

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

Keeping ahead of language change with Google Translate

Keeping ahead of change with Google Translate

Read all about it

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

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

Embrace it

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

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

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