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smooth, easy transaction – level A1 stuff at best – I was met with a stern look and a “det gjelder ikke lenger” (that’s no longer valid). Yes, unbeknownst to me, Norges Bank had withdrawn billions of NOK’s worth of money since I exchanged those forgotten notes at the Post Office.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.

A stash of tourist leaflets and guides in various foreign languages.

Lovely Leaflets: Making the most of foreign language tourist ephemera

What have I been doing this week? Well, apart from obsessing over topping Duolingo’s new global leaderboards? Mostly, I’ve been hacking my way through reams of foreign language leaflets and tourist material I’ve amassed over the past few months of travel.

Despite a fixation with order and decluttering, I have to  admit that I let the piles of paper mount up. When faced with racks of foreign language material on holiday, my eyes light up. I can’t help but feast on the freebies. From talking to fellow polyglots, I am certainly not alone.

So how can we feed our fascination, but ensure we make the most of these fun, free resources?

Scrapbooking is your space-saving friend

First things first: these things take up room!

“Kiitos” (thanks) on a grocery bag from a Helsinki supermarket. Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

A trip to Finland resulted in bags of extra material in Finnish and Swedish!

The fact is that few of us have room to store wads and wads of paper from a lifetime of travelling. We call this kind of material ephemera for a reason: it is not meant to hang around long.

As a teacher, I would store authentic materials like this to use in lessons. The physical resources actually had a use. Now, as a learner, my instinct might still be to hoard them, but most of the time they simply end up lying around. It is far too easy to forget about your stash of leaflets. My cache has often sat, forgotten, in a side pocket of my suitcase for weeks.

The good news: this is what digital scrapbooking was made for. I use digital scrapbooks to create snapshots of all sorts of cultural ephemera from trips. Leaflets fit the bill perfectly.

Scrapbooking tools

You can get started with any note-taking software or app. Create a document, snap your items, and annotate.  My tool of choice is the brilliant Evernote. But Microsoft OneNote is perhaps even better for the task, since you can position image elements more freely on each page. Most importantly, both platforms are free to use at entry level.

Alternatively, document scanning apps can capture your material and turn it into PDFs. I use Scanner Pro on iOS, but there are many alternatives across platforms, including free apps like Adobe Scan. Most of these apps will also hook up to online drives like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive, making sure your material is backed up safely.

Leaflets captured, you can safely offload the originals into the bin. But remember to recycle!

How to work with leaflets as learning resources?

To make our leaflet-foraging worthwhile, we need to actively use these resources. And the great thing about digitally storing your leaflets is that we can simply type your notes and workings straight into the same documents that contain the scans. Nice and tidy!

There are myriad activities and approaches for active consumption of the material. The trick is to be as creative as you can with them to eke out the most benefit. Here are a few simple exercises for starters:

Vocabulary mining

The simplest activity is simply mining the material for new words and phrases. If you are still at a more elementary stage of the language, focus on the titles and headings. At a more advanced stage, you can introduce grammar tasks such as highlighting all the verbs or other parts of speech. Interrogate that material for as much new knowledge as you can.

Translation

Try to produce an idiomatic, flowing translation of the material in your native language. Note where it is necessary to express the ideas quite differently from language to language. Are there phrases that are difficult to reproduce exactly in your own?

Play the interpreter

Imagine you are taking a group of friends or family to the attraction. Read or skim the material a section at a time. Then, put it down between each reading and interpret the gist out loud, from memory, in your native language. This is great practice for actually performing the task for real-life travel companions!

In your own words

A real test of language mastery is creative production. Can you say the same thing in several ways? Paraphrasing and summarising are fantastic leaflet drill activities for this skill. Read a section of material, then look away. Try, from memory, to reproduce the material in your own words. This can be spoken, written, or (ideally) both.

Local language for local leaflets

Remember, these are local leaflets for local people! Well, not quite. But be enthusiastically cautious about leaflets in languages other than the local one for that attraction. Most of the time, professional translators, who are native speakers, will have translated the documents. However, this is not always the case. We have all spotted errors in even the most careful of translations into our own languages.

As a rule, it is always safest to grab the guide in the actual language of the country you are visiting. That said, this never stopped me snaffling literature in German and Polish when visiting the Book of Kells in Dublin. And it shouldn’t curb your enthusiasm either! Just regard such material with a careful and critical eye.

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

These guidelines should help inject some purpose and organisation into your pursuit of lovely leaflets. Above all, just enjoy this excellent – and free! –  source of learning material without getting lost in sea of paper. Oh – and leave a few behind for everybody else, too!

How do you learn from the material you pick up on your travels? Do you have specific leaflet-learning ideas that help? Share them in the comments below!

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!

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.

A bit of mindfulness can help the study sun break through

Mindfulness tools for language learners

Even if languages are your passion, everybody needs a break. Pacing learning well is the hallmark of the efficient student, and avoiding burnout should be a top priority for polyglots.

Mindfulness techniques – finding balance and quiet in the now – can be a true source of pace and ease for those who constantly keep the heat turned up on learning. Thankfully, they are now almost ubiquitous in their availability, and finding guides to them has never been easier.

Having had an unusually hectic few weeks (even for me), I’ve been very grateful for them of late. I wanted to share a couple of tools I’ve used in the past few weeks – one new to me, another old faithful. Together, they’ve helped me to introduce some mindful pauses into my routine, and I hope they help you too.

Calm

My most recent app addition is the rich, ambient Calm, available for both iOS and Android. Calm recently snagged an App of the Year award from Apple, and the platform has given it a lot of exposure through feature ads recently.

At its most basic level, the app provides guided meditations paired with beautiful, animated backdrops with relaxing natural soundtracks. Paired with features such as timed meditation reminders (these couple up excellently with the Pomodoro technique, if you use that), it gives you a restful place to flee to between heavy study sessions and a helping hand to remember to clock out.

Window on your language world

However, the canny linguist can repurpose Calm to get even more from it. Although Calm’s beautiful scenic meditations are pretty generic, they can easily be related to various target language cultures. Mountains, forests, beaches – with a little imagination, you can fit them into any linguistic setting. Pick one, prop your device on your desk, and you are studying next to a window on the world of your language.

All very well, but it isn’t just about looking pretty. Using Calm in this way can help tailor a very specific learning environment. And that, in turn, helps to block off and demarcate your time into discrete chunks of language learning time. Switch on your calming Alpine view, for example, and your brain is primed to expect some intense German tuition. Bring up your beach, and hey presto! You’re ready for some Spanish. Let Calm evoke the soul of your language (however clichéd a version of that soul!).

Mindfulness study zone with an Alpine view

Mindfulness study zone with a lakeside view

Headspace

My other indispensable digital escape pod continues to be the wonderful Headspace. If Calm can help improve your working environment, Headspace specifically targets the spaces between sessions. Providing short, meditative exercises ideal for even the shortest work breaks, regular use can be a real head saver. As a beginner’s way into mindfulness techniques, it is hard to beat.

I find it invaluable as a route to winding back down after an intense period of learning (or working the day job, for that matter). In the heat of it, too, Headspace can be a lifeline. As long as you can find somewhere to safely switch off for five minutes with your headphones, Headspace is there for you. It can be a very constructive use of time locked in the office loo!

Even in free mode, Headspace can be incredibly helpful with its course of ten starter sessions. But for learners who decide to subscribe, there are some very special treats. Courses on mindfulness for studying, anxiety and more play right into the language learner’s greatest mental and emotional needs.

Freemium experience

Both Calm and Headspace offer some free content, with a greater range available on subscription. For now, I’ve found that the free offerings suit me just fine, although I have subscribed to the premium tier of Headspace in the past, and it is excellent.

Calming scenes for real-life linguists

In other news, I was lucky enough to spend time in my own, ultimate, real-life mindfulness scene this weekend. With cheap, short flights, Iceland is an easy hop away from Scotland, and perfect for a whistlestop language escape. If quick getaways like this are possible, they are the ultimate way to let off steam and immerse yourself in your passion. And with views like this, I never forget why learning Icelandic can be so rewarding.

Gullfoss - the ultimate mindfulness scene

Gullfoss, Iceland

Edinburgh Castle is a stunning backdrop to the Edinburgh Fringe each August

Edinburgh Fringe for Language Lovers: Shows for Linguists!

Edinburgh Fringe has filled the streets of Scotland’s capital for another colourful August. There are literally thousands of shows available to see. The sheer number of them means that there is bound to be something of interest to everyone. And that includes linguists!

After trawling through the masses on offer, here are some promising-sounding events for students / teachers / fans of languages. Inevitably, it’s the ‘mainstream’ languages of French, German and Spanish that crop up most. But amongst them, there are shows that will appeal to non-speakers, too. And that’s a great excuse to take along a friend or two to spread the language love!

French

The festival can’t get enough of Piaf this year. There are at least five cabaret shows featuring chansons from the renowned songstress! They include:

If you prefer your music folksy, then a set from Les Poules à Coulin looks like a good bet. For dance / physical theatre with a French slant, check out “La Maladie de la Mort d’Après Marguerite Duras”. Check the website, though, as some performances may be in English translation.

Something that really captures the imagination is a bilingual puppetry and storytelling event in French. “The Wonderful World of Lapin” looks like a particularly cute way to introduce the little ones to a bit of français. Most likely, quite a few big ‘uns would also find it magical!

German

German is a little under-represented compared to French (keine Überraschung, sadly!). However, there are a couple of interesting listings that might be worth a punt.

Absurdist theatre your bag? Well, there’s a show for you, performed in German with some English explanations. “Leere Zeit – Idle Time” is on at theSpace on the Mile, a venue that promises a global aspect to its line-up.

For some more classical, musical entertainment, you can enjoy Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos in the church setting of Broughton St Mary’s.

Spanish

As ubiquitous as Piaf is for French, you can’t seem to get away from Flamenco at this year’s Fringe. There are three shows that feature the quintessential Spanish musical / dance style:

The poetry of Lorca takes centre stage at “Frost and Lorca”. The event features artwork by Sir Terry Frost, inspired by the Spanish writer; the presentation is in Spanish and English, so should be suitable for non-hispanist friends!

And for a proper melting pot of storytelling, try “Mimi’s Suitcase”, which blends English, Spanish and Persian to explore themes of identity and displacement.

Even the good old Edinburgh Ghost Tour gets the Spanish treatment this year. “Tour de fantasmas en español” sounds like a fun way to get a stock Edinburgh tourist tick and practise español at the same time!

Russian

Although it’s chiefly English-language comedy, Abi Robert’s show Anglichanka (Englishwoman) is worth a mention. Abi spent considerable time in Russia, and weaves her many tall tales into a wonderfully hilarious hour of laughter. I caught her performing a similar show at my very first Edinburgh Fringe (quite) some years ago, and it’s great to see her back at the festival with more of that hugely funny format!

Culture (without the language)

As well as the above shows, there are hundreds more without a specific language hook, but of cultural interest to linguaphiles. Russia is under the spotlight in several satirical / topical shows, for example.

Less controversially, Russian classical music is on the programme at a number of concerts. Scottish Sinfonia’s line-up sounds like quite a treat. Likewise, you can learn about imagined lives in Russia at theatre events like “The Girl Who Loved Stalin”.

If the aim is to steep yourself in the culture of Russia (or many other target language cultures), then there is a wealth of choice.

Edinburgh Fringe: take a punt

I’ve always found that the best way to enjoy the Fringe is to take a risk. With shows priced so reasonably, you can easily try something you wouldn’t normally see. Thought you hated Piaf? Give her a chance at one of the several shows on offer. Irritated by flamenco? Then give the Scottish twist on it a chance! Personally, the German absurdist theatre tempts the risk-taker in me. It could be worth a shot! And if not, then at least it gets me out of the house for an hour or two…

Have you managed to catch any of the shows above? Are there any others that you’d recommend? Please share in the comments below!

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Berlin, where have you been all my life?

Language learning isn’t finite; it’s a lifelong process, and isn’t meant to have an end. As such, languages never count as ‘finished’ or ‘learnt’, but require upkeep and maintenance.

With this in mind, I’ve been planning some exciting mini-trips to German-speaking towns over the past few months. Since graduating from university, I’d taken my German for granted a bit. As my first, and strongest foreign language, it was a bit of an oversight that needed some correction. And, looking in the right places with the right tools, you can unearth some real bargains, and make maintenance breaks a regular thing.

Bremen was my first German weekend of 2017, back in May. It was a great way to ease back into travelling the country – an intimate, friendly and compact city well served by budget flights. I loved every minute of it, and it left me ready for the big boss of German cities: Berlin.

Why Berlin?

As a student, I’d shunned Germany to focus on Austria and Switzerland. The southern German-speaking countries had a special draw to me then, with my fascination of dialect. (Germany is just as rich in dialects, though – something I overlooked as a student!) Berlin was a chance to redress the years of negligence, and really get to know this icon of Germany.

Zip in and around with ease

Berlin is an excellent place for a weekend hop-over or short stay. For a start, many low-cost carriers serve the city. From the UK, I flew in to Tegel for £40 (FlyBe), and am flying out of Schönefeld for £30 (EasyJet). From the US, although obviously more expensive, there are still budget options such as Wow Air.

What’s more, connections from the airports to the city are easy and excellent. The Berlin public transport system (BVG) is comprehensive, fast and good value. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for all zones A, B, and C – including the airports – is currently just €7.70. And that covers local trains, trams and buses. (For most of your full-day activities, a ticket for zones A and B will suffice, making it even cheaper.)

All this makes Berlin the perfect candidate for zipping into and around if you have a limited budget and a short time.

A Berlin for everybody

The huge selling point of Berlin is its diversity of attractions. There are museums, exhibits and sights that will appeal variously to all kinds of interests. And entry fees are, on the whole, very reasonable! Pretty impressive for a major city (and welcome to a Brit suffering from a weak pound!)

Traditional museum buff with a love of antiquity? The Pergamon Museum is probably top of your list. Like showcase architecture and spectacular views? Then head to the Fernsehturm (TV Tower).

As for me, I’m a political history nerd. Hungry to learn everything I could about the old East German regime, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a period the city has come to terms with through openness; the Stasi Museum (€6.00) and DDR Museum (€9.50) are intriguing, often disturbing, but ultimately extremely enlightening places to spend time. For the linguist, they offer tons of reading material in the form of short summaries of key events with each exhibit. These are in German and English, just in case you need some translation support!

Deciphering East German soldier speak at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

Deciphering East German soldier speak in an exhibit at the GDR (DDR) Museum in Berlin

History – and language – on every corner

The city is also full of symbolic, charged landmarks of political history, like Checkpoint Charlie and the restored Reichstag. To dig into the significance of each, I used the German language version of Wikipedia to do my planning beforehand. Additionally, public buildings have dedicated websites, like the Reichstag website – essential for booking the highly recommended (and free!) lift to the roof to view the cupola. The Reichstag reception also has piles of books and leaflets in German, all free to take away with you after your visit.

YouTube is a great pre-trip resource, with some excellent historical clips for fact-digging in the target language. I walked through the Brandenburger Tor, from East to West, after refreshing my own memory with German documentary footage of citizens streaming to freedom one November night in 1989. That made for a pretty special way to rei-imagine Berlin’s history.

The day-to-day

Besides the grand cultural experiences, there was plenty of chance to practise my more prosaic German. Berliners come across as open and friendly people, and it was easy to turn everyday conversations into a little bit more.

Being used to waves of tourists with little or no German, shop and restaurant staff seem more than happy to have a little chat if you want to go beyond “one piece of Streusel, please!”. Being curious and asking questions helps – “wie heißt dieser Kuchen?” (“what’s this cake called?”) was a simple but effective conversation starter in the bakery! Just the slightest hint of an accent will turn the simplest of questions into a chat about why you speak German, too.

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

Icon of Berlin, the Fernsehturm, seen from Alexanderplatz

In short, I don’t know why I left it so long. Berlin, where have you been all my life? Multiple trips back are a foregone conclusion; the charm of the city and the inexhaustible pot of things to do ensure that. As an affordable mini-trip for Germanists in maintenance mode, I can’t recommend it enough.

Avoiding English can be hard in a very anglocentric world

The English trap: avoiding your native language abroad

It’s too easy to be lazy in an anglocentric world. It happens to the best language learners in the world: you come out with your best Deutsch / français / español on your trip, only to get the reply in English. GRR! – for a moment – before we give in to the easy option.

I’ve found that the trick to beating this is a bit of Bond-style subterfuge. This is one area of life where dishonesty can be the best policy, as you try to obliterate all traces of your original linguistic identity. Specifically, you need to eliminate any native-English intonation from your speech.

Easier said than done, admittedly. There are some quite large targets to hit, though, and here are some of the easiest to de-anglifying yourself on your language trip!

Down with diphthongs

In most varieties of English, vowel sounds clump together and are rarely pure. Just think of the word ‘too’. That ‘oo’ isn’t a straightforward, single sound, but for speakers of most varieties of English, contains at least two stages – the ‘oo’ followed by a glide down to what is almost a ‘w’ sound at the end. These kinds of multisound syllables are called diphthongs, and are very characteristic of English.

By contrast, languages like Spanish and Italian have much purer vowel sounds. Spanish  (you), for example, sounds much more clipped and singular than the homophone too.

So, when trying to disguise your English accent, be aware of your natural tendency to diphthongise. Keep your pronunciation clipped and terse, if that helps.

Have a back story

Sometimes, out-and-out fibbing is the only way. Be ready with a “sorry, I don’t speak English” to force the speaker to use the target language. Have a back story, if that helps – why don’t you speak English? Where are you actually from, if not from the UK / USA / Australia etc.? (Make sure it’s unlikely the speaker won’t also know the language of that country, else it could get pretty embarrassing.)

It’s an untruth, but see it as a little white lie that  might grab you some more language practice opportunity. And it might also prompt the speaker to switch back to a more careful, clear form of the target language to use with you (you poor non-English-speaker!).

English penalties

Can’t beat the temptation to switch? Then turn target language speaking into a game. Keep a tally of the times you give in and lapse into English each day. Go a step further and devise a list of penalties for hitting X/Y/Z digressions. Nothing too self-punishing, please – maybe buying dinner for your travel buddies or relinquishing control of the travel itinerary for a day. Keep it positive!

If all else fails – be honest

We’re not all cut out (or bothered) to be masters of disguise. You can always take the heart-on-your-sleeve option: simply explain why you don’t want to use English. You can prepare this in advance of your trip – just a few phrases will suffice, such as:

  • I’m learning X
  • I need to practise my X
  • Can we speak X?

Most of the time, you’ll also elicit some sympathy and a smile or two from the speaker, too. And who knows? You might even make friends.

You’ve paid a lot of hard-earnt cash for your chance to go abroad and speak. Protect that investment, by hook or by crook!

 

Travel with the bare essentials

Travel and the ‘Stuff Monster’ : Lessons from the road

Travel has always gone hand-in-hand with a love of languages for me. As a kid, I realised how languages were a key to opening up huge swathes of a fascinating world, a world I wanted to explore. And, sure enough, I grew up into something of a travel addict and extreme commuter.

But travel isn’t just about wonderful life experiences, but also a huge learning opportunity. The lessons at hand touch on a couple of fundamental aspects of humanity: freedom and footprint. Here, I look at some of my favourite lessons learnt from travel.

The less, the merrier

Modern, Western lives are stuff-heavy. Our lives are full of things. And we’re often not content with just one of something – we like choice. Multiple pairs of shoes, the same shirt in three different colours, a rack of coats to suit every mood. It sounds great, until you realise how closely a surfeit of stuff – clutter – and depression are interlinked.

As soon as you start to travel, though, it becomes apparent how unburdening it is to break that link. I’ve long abandoned taking a suitcase on a journey – that just encourages you to cram a load of unnecessary choices – and weight – that you won’t end up using anyway. Lugging your life about like that only creates stress.

Instead, it’s become a bit of a game to see how lightly I can pack. I challenge myself to take ever-smaller backpacks with me on trips. I work out the minimum I can get away with. The challenge is not only fun, but it leaves you incredibly streamlined – how ace is it to simply jump off the plane / train / coach with your lightweight bag and nothing to slow you down?

Neat ‘n’ tidy

Stuff eats space. If we feed the stuff monster, it hogs more and more of life’s real estate. And it’s true what they say: a messy place more often than not leads to a messy mind.

It’s the same with travel, especially if you’re moving between multiple destinations. With too much stuff, there’s a lot to think about when you pack up to move on. Did I pack this? Have I picked up everything from the room?  Keeping your stuff to a compact minimum helps enormously with stuff-stress. Keep yourself tidy and be ready to move on at the drop of a hat!

Waste not, want not

The world doesn’t want your stuff, either, or at least the detritus from it. So use up what you have before throwing it away. And if possible, stick to refillable containers.  These squidgies from GoToob are brilliant for minimising packaging waste, and saving money on those rather poor value mini-sized toiletries! Frugality can save the world and spare your pocket.

Travel, Respect and learn

Wherever we go, we’re guests. And the very least you can do to be a thankful guest is to learn a few words of the language. Whether you’re a linguist or not, some local vocab invariably wins smiles and opens doors if you’re in a foreign country.

There’s no excuse not to learn the absolute bare minimum, which would be:

  • Hello
  • Thank you
  • Goodbye

Head to Google Translate and find them out before you go!

Put your phone away

Technology is wonderful. But like stuff, it’s also a monster, and needs taming. Dogged by notifications, I find that Airplane Mode can be my very best travel buddy. Disconnecting from the ‘net can relieve some of the ‘always on’ stress, and get you focussed on what’s around you in the physical world. But at the same time, it’s the perfect strategy for making your battery last longer between fizzle-outs.

Granted, phones are often our cameras these days. But even then, do you need scores of photos from each location? After finding how infrequently I look at them afterwards, I set myself a max limit of just a couple of photos per sight / special location when I travel. It means you’re messing less often with your phone, taking in more of the experience with your own eyes and brain, and thinking a bit more carefully about the very best shot to get when you do reach for the camera. Hopefully, the shots that come out of that will be really special.

At the crux of all these lessons is materialism and freedom. Humans love stuff, physical or digital. But travel teaches you that masses and masses of it bog you down. Downsize, minimalise and economise – and travel through life that bit more aerodynamically!

Aeroplane

Language travels on a shoestring

Despite brill online face-to-face services like iTalki for practising and learning languages with native speakers, you can’t beat time spent in the country as the best way to immerse yourself in your chosen language. Seems like an expensive way to fluency, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t have to be, with a range of web tools for sourcing super-cheap travel to your target language country.

Top of the list, and indispensable to the travelling linguist, is Google Flights Explore. It’s not particularly well signposted online – in fact, it’s practically clandestine, and you have to be told by someone else ‘in the know’ before you can find it! Why the experimental extension to Google’s flight search is not promoted more is a mystery, but it’s second-to-none at sourcing cheap flight offers with very general search terms (and I mean very – you can pop in ‘Scandinavia’ or ‘Eastern Europe’, and it will check the lot!).

For instance, say you’re learning Polish. Enter your preferred airport of origin, then Poland as the destination. You can adjust the length of the trip if you like, but the default 3-5 days is a good short break duration if you’re looking for a cheap getaway to practise your language skills. You don’t even need to add a date, as when you select your start and end points, you’ll be presented with a list of destinations along with time charts of the cheapest flights to each. It will even order them, with the cheapest, on average, at the top.

The example below shows that I can get to Warsaw from Edinburgh for as little as around £20 return (USD$25, although prices in your local currency appear when you click through to one of the flights on the time chart).

Google Flights Explore example

Google Flights Explore

Switching to a traditionally more expensive flight destination, such as Norway, still yields great results; a quick search today threw out some £30 returns on London-Oslo routes. It’s just as handy for longer-haul flights, too; flying from New York, Norwegian students can get to the country for under USD$300 return in a sample search made at the time of writing.

But how to minimise costs when you get there? Accommodation will be perhaps the biggest expense on the tick-list. It’s no big secret that, for value, you can’t really beat private rental services like AirBnB. Combining with the sample Polish flight search above, you could add a private room in a shared house for just £11 a night at the time of writing. That amounts to less than £100 for a 5-night stay, flights and accommodation included.

But there are more benefits to using these services like this than low rates. For a linguist / cultural explorer, a private rental property will likely:

  • come with a direct contact, and so more opportunity to meet a local and practise a bit of language as soon as you’re off the plane
  • give you a more authentic experience of what it’s like to live in the target language country, especially as it’s more likely to be self-catering (think of all that shopping vocab you can practise!)
  • give you day-to-day, lived experience of the language if you’re in a shared property / room in someone’s home

Compare that to the often sterile, internationalised hotel reception experience, and private accommodation offers big boons for the language traveller!

There are ways to minimise living costs while you’re there, too. They may not be glamorous – buying food supplies at supermarkets rather than going out to eat, grabbing a cheap pølser i brød (hotdog) at an Oslo kiosk for tea – but again, they bring you into direct contact with the target language, rather than sanitising your experience through safe, familiar settings like restaurants.

It might seem an extreme measure – and, intuitively, an outrageously unaffordable one – to ‘pop abroad’ when you need some target language practice. But it needn’t be bank-breaking, if you know where to look. Commit to a cheap cultural scouting trip once every month, or at least couple of months, setting yourself a tiny budget and seeing what you can do with it. Your inner linguist will thank you!