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Personalise your vocab routine with Tatoeba custom lists

Often, on a learning journey, you find your way back to a trusty old path travelled a while back. And recently, I have found my way back to the mass sentence site Tatoeba in order to solve a very particular language learning problem.

Sourcing specialist vocab in context

The issue to solve was familiar to many of us: a lack of formal learning materials on vocabulary topics of specific interest to us. For me, politics and current affairs are such hot topics, and I enjoy chatting about them. Why not bring that into my conversational sessions?

Here’s the rub: not many language primers cover this material thematically.

Of course, I could dive straight into primary news materials like newspaper websites. But these are frequently well beyond the ‘intermediate improver’ stage I am at with a number of my languages.

The solution? Tatoeba’s vast corpus of searchable sentences taken from all areas of written life, and translated into multiple languages by native speakers.

Curating custom Tatoeba lists

Why is Tatoeba such a perfect platform for sourcing very specific vocabulary for speaking lessons? It is atomised, for a start. The sentences may be lifted from extensive, lengthy, real-world texts online and elsewhere, but they are broken down into single sentences for consumption on the site. As a result, they are much easier to work with.

For example, rather than scouring for useful instances of the word rząd (government) in use, I can simply search Tatoeba for sentences containing that word. Not only is it quicker, but the yield is greater too; scores of sentences pop up in an instant. It would take a lot of online scouring to find so many items from scratch.

Creating custom lists

The second big advantage of vocab-hunting on Tatoeba is list curation. With all those useful governmental phrases called up, you simply work your way down the results, clicking the little document icon to add them to a custom list. These lists become you very own personalised vocab learning banks.

Mining Tatoeba for sentences containing the Polish 'rząd' (government).

Mining Tatoeba for sentences containing the Polish ‘rząd’ (government).

A note on quality: for best results, use the advanced search and ensure that you check the owned by a self-identified native option when phrase-chasing. You can even specify whether the entries have audio or not, which may be useful if you are brave enough to play with more complex options for export!

Advanced search options on Tatoeba

Advanced search options on Tatoeba

Once created and populated, your list has its very own page, including a simple text export option. You can also make what you have created publicly available, if you are minded to share.

Curating a custom list from Tatoeba sentences

Curating a custom list from Tatoeba sentences

After you have refined and exported your list, it is an easy final step to add the data to your Anki decks via File > Import. Likewise, importing into Quizlet is hassle-free with the basic tab-delimited format of the exported file.

Then, the real work begins as you start to drill your new vocabulary bank!

Material from Tatoeba imported into an Anki card

Material from Tatoeba
imported into an Anki card

Realistic expectations

A word of caution on importing your sentence cache into Anki: be kind to yourself. The default daily drip rate for new vocab items is ten per day. As these are full sentences, sometimes quite complicated, that can be a stretch. That is true especially if you are running these new sentences alongside your current decks, doubling your daily load.

I reduced my new card rate to five a day for the Polish deck above, which was just challenging enough whilst ensuring that I worked through them at a decent speed.

Back to its best

Tatoeba bounced back from a serious crash in recent months, and is now back to its best as a top tool for vocabulary expansion. It is a very welcome return for anyone hunting  custom source material for language learning.

As for my own progress, so far so good. Slowly but surely, that carefully selected material is making its way into my memory. And since it matches my interests, motivation to learn is high. Not only that: I am so used to drilling single dictionary items in Anki, that the fresh wave of full sentences has made for a helpful change. And it deserves a mention again and again: variety is a fundamental pillar in any successful language learning regime.

Give mass sentences a go if you struggle to find support for the things you want to talk about. There’s nothing like some vocab DIY to revive a tired routine!

Wading into the jungle of a new language course. Image from

Recon in the course book jungle: forward loading vocab to breeze through books

You know the feeling. A shiny new course book, fresh from the bookshop. All that potential, just sitting there, between the covers. There’s a joy and anticipation at the sight of a language learning book that only linguaphiles can know.

But where to start?

Sometimes, wading into the jungle, simply plodding straight through from page one, is harder than we would like. Somehow it can all feel a little… passive.

But there is a better way. Something that has recently proven especially effective for me and my course books is forward loading vocabulary. It’s an explorative, preliminary approach that can really increase what we get out of traditional courses like the Teach Yourself and Colloquial series. It turns passive plodding into active consumption of material.

So what is it all about?

Book recon

Don’t worry – there is no need to put off opening those pages immediately. Forward loading vocabulary is all about diving into your nice, new book straight away.

But that first dive is not to work methodically, and linearly, through the texts and language exercises. Instead, you initially steam through, chapter by chapter, combing the word lists, grammar explanations and dialogues to build your own vocabulary repository first.

Think of it as a language book recon mission. You are heading out on an expedition through the material to see what the terrain is like, and make your own map before you set off for real.

And how do you make that map? Using the vocabulary building tools of your choice, with a little bit of cross-referencing from dictionary sites and similar materials.

Preloading vocabulary from the first chapters of the Teach Yourself Finnish course in Anki

Preloading vocabulary from the first chapters of the Teach Yourself Finnish course in Anki

As for the level of granularity you choose – whether just key words or every lexeme, full phrases or the dictionary forms of individual items, for example – that is up to you. Anything you do counts as great prep for starting the book proper, so every bit of vocab mining helps.

I used the technique preparing for a recent language learning mini-break to Finland. Taking Teach Yourself Finnish (now Complete Finnish) as the key course, I first scoured the initial chapters for vocabulary. I collected this all in Anki, cross-referencing with Wiktionary to check spelling and add information (like infinitive forms, plurals and such like) as I went. To be particularly thorough, I even included the target language instructions, like harjoitellaan (“let’s practise”). Nothing is without value – it’s all extra word power.

With that done, I had primed myself for the material before I even started. Not only that, but I had created an interactive, daily vocab activity drill regime to run alongside the course material. I was ready to start Teach Yourself Finnish proper!

The benefits of preloading course vocab

As already mentioned, the obvious benefit of forward loading is priming, specifically repetition priming.  This cursory familiarity with course material is a kind of pre-learning, and sets the stage for greater recall even before you even start in earnest.

Our brains pick up much more than we might realise from a first look. Having worked through all those words initially means that connections form – and deep learning occurs – much more readily the second time around.

Own that vocab

That’s not to mention the boost to your sense of ownership over that learning material. Working carefully and creatively with vocabulary is a fantastic way simply to care more about it. And caring more is a sure route to greater motivation. Tools like Anki allow for all sorts of customisations that help make those decks your own.

Managed, two-track learning

Depending on the vocab tools you use, you can benefit from some solid learning science, too. Anki, for example, drip-feeds flash cards to the user at intervals based on an optimised formula.

In my Finnish experiment, I found that Anki’s 10-a-day standard pace matched quite well the speed at which a learner would usually progress through a text book. That makes for a complimentary, tandem vocab learning track to go alongside your course work.

Savvy learning

Creating a separate glossary also makes you a savvy learner. You can keep tabs on exactly the kind of words and phrases you are covering in the language. Not only that: you can even give a rough guesstimate on how much you know of that language, in much the same way as Duolingo measures progress in its use of the term ‘lexemes’ (these units are exposed on the Duome site, for example).

Anki, for example, will report the number of items in your decks via the Browse tab. If you are ever frustrated by woolly questions like “how well do you know language X?”, then an exact word count can be a satisfying (if not particularly practical) answer!

Sharing is caring

Finally, building custom word lists gives you the opportunity to share your hard work with others in the community. Although using ready-made lists won’t give them the benefit of all that sense of ownership, it might be the helping hand they need to get started in Finnish / Hindi / Yoruba. Here is my collected vocabulary from Teach Yourself Finnish Chapters 1-3, handily collated in a public Quizlet list.

Forward loading is one way of working actively with your course book rather than just passively consuming it. It gets you started straight away, gives you a real sense of progress, and sets you up to breeze through the course book when you tackle it in earnest. Do a bit of vocab recon before you start wading through the jungle, and give forward loading a try!

A computer screen (image from

Vocabulary cross-platforming : make your DIY language learning data work harder

A major feature of language learning in the digital world is the abundance of tools for building and testing your own vocabulary banks. Anki, Quizlet, Educandy, StudyBlue, Cram… There are all sorts of platforms for collecting and drilling the words and phrases you study. And pretty much all of them have a free tier, making these tools more accessible than ever.

But what most of these platforms share is an often overlooked feature that adds a little bit of power to your wordbank building. It is the facility to export and import vocabulary data in a standardised, cross-platform format.

The biggest benefit of this is the ability to create your word lists just once, then work with them on multiple sites or apps. So why is that so useful?

Variety in learning

For one thing, variety is particularly important for maintaining a healthy learning regime. Taking multiple approaches avoids tying your new knowledge to one particular setting, and falling foul of the context effect. When you make use of several testing platforms, you discourage the brain from binding words and phrases to unrelated cues like layout, colours, font, and even the environment you regularly use the app in.

Not only that: using the same platform all the time can just get dull. And if there is one demotivator you need to avoid, it is boredom. Mix it up and keep it fresh!

Finding perfection in the mix

No platform is perfect. Some do things better than others. Others do things that are unique and not offered elsewhere. Sticking to one single tool for your vocabulary practice is certainly not making the most of the wealth of opportunity on offer.

As an example, Quizlet and Cram offer a couple of fun, arcade-style games. These make a nice change from the familiar, text-based drills of many apps. Additionally, Quizlet has a clean, no-nonsense test activity, which combines four types of activity across twenty random items in your list. It’s snappy and random enough to stretch you with longer vocabulary lists. And then again, none of them really beats the interval-based flashcard testing of Anki.

No single app has it all – ensure that you get it all by cross-platforming.

Arcade-style vocabulary drilling with Quizlet's Gravity

Arcade-style vocabulary drilling
with Quizlet’s Gravity game

Ownership of vocabulary

I’m a big fan of creating a sense of ownership over your own vocabulary to increase motivation. Those words and phrases are a map of your own, very personal journey through the language. Be proud of them! Careful curation of a master list for use across sites can help foster that sense of pride.

Exporting your data from services that you use puts it in your hands. You can use it elsewhere, or even alter it directly if you like – it is no longer bound to a third-party service.

Getting at your data

Of course, you actually need to get at your data to enjoy all of this.

The first step is to locate the import / export features of your tool of choice. In Anki, for example, the relevant options are in the File menu. In Quizlet, you will find export in the settings menu for each of your question lists; import options, however, appear when you go to create a new list. If in doubt, search for import / export on the FAQ or help pages of your chosen service.

Once located, the standard format you need may be labelled differently from app to app. Generally, comma-separated, plain text values are the most compatible across platforms. In Anki, this equates to selecting Notes in Plain Text (*.txt). To maximise compatibility further, uncheck any extra options, such as tags or media references in the Anki example blow.

Exporting vocabulary from Anki

Exporting vocabulary from Anki

Exporting vocabulary from Quizlet

Exporting vocabulary from Quizlet

The text-only file created should contain all your vocabulary data, but be simple and stripped down enough to import into most sites. Comma-separated files can even be opened and edited in spreadsheet software like Excel and Sheets.

As a handy side-effect, they also double as emergency backups of your data if you store them safely elsewhere. Accidentally deleted your list? Or has the site you were using disappeared? No problem. You have your vocabulary safely squirreled away.

Choose your master

It is also crucial to choose your master. Don’t fret – your personal autonomy is safe! It is a master app or platform that you need to decide on.

Select a single platform that you use as your main repository – ideally the one you are most comfortable list-building with. You can then export from that into other services. This keeps things simple: any new vocabulary will always go into your master list, and you will avoid ending up with discrepancies across platforms.

I use Anki as my master list, chiefly since it allows for tagging entries with keywords, making your data queryable. For example, it is a cinch to run off sublists of vocabulary based on topic tags for various purposes. Anki’s Browse window gives easy access to these quite powerful list management features, and it operates very much like a database. Anki is also extensible with modules that enable greater multimedia control, such as this add-on for interfacing with other language learning web services to enhance your notes.

Browsing Polish vocabulary in the Anki desktop app.

Browsing Polish vocabulary in the Anki desktop app.

That said, you can even use spreadsheet software to manage your master list as mentioned above. Administering your vocabulary in a ‘raw’ format like this can increase your sense of ownership over it, too.

Don’t find yourself limited to a single vocabulary management platform. Own your data and make it work!

Are you making free resources work for you? Get the most of out of that wealth of apps on offer. Cross-platform your vocabulary!

An owl. Probably not the Duolingo one, but I'm sure they're friends. (Image from

Building linguistic muscle memory with Duolingo

I achieved not quite a lifelong dream this week. Let’s call it a months-long dream. I finally reached level 25 in German on Duolingo!

When the moment of glory came, it was more with a fizzle than with fireworks. As the XP points ticked over, the ‘points to next’ level disappeared, a simple XP counter in its place. I won’t pretend I wasn’t quite chuffed secretly, though.

But hang on! Can’t I already speak German? As my strongest foreign language, what was I doing thrashing through levels and levels of a beginner to intermediate course? Of course, besides the gamified pride of having that shiny 25 next to the language on my Duolingo profile.

Well, fluency is never a done deal. Even our strongest languages need maintenance work to keep them in shape. And what started as a curious exploration of Duolingo’s German course showed me how useful it can be to use lower-level learner drill tools to reinforce your skills as a fluent speaker. Convinced of the benefits, I’m now using it to blitz Norwegian, another of my more confident languages.

So why is Duolingo so useful?

A Duolingo leaderboard

A Duolingo leaderboard

Muscle memory

Muscle memory, or motor learning, is the process by which certain skills become automatic and unthinking through repetition. You know the kind of thing: playing scales on a piano, using a computer keyboard, operating the controls of a car. They are tasks that we perform so often that they just happen on some level below consciousness.

Proficient language use has a component of this, too. As we become more and more familiar with the patterns of a language, we form grammatically sound phrases ever more automatically. After years of learning French, German or Spanish, you no longer have to think about gendered articles, for example. At some point you just get it.

The key routes to achieving this language ‘muscle memory’ are exposure and repetition. And Duolingo exercises have that by the truckload. That green owl has prepared hundreds and hundreds of sentences, each selected as an example of idiomatic, grammatically correct usage.

Automating those little details

The upshot of this is that you can work on automating those annoying little details that always trip you up, even in your strong languages. For example,  learning phrases to express date and time are a pet hate of mine as a learner. When speaking quickly, I am still tempted to use the equivalent of the English preposition, which is often not the same in the target language.

Take Norwegian as an example. To express duration where English uses ‘for’, the language uses i (in), such as ‘i fem uker’ (for five weeks). Even after years of working on my Norwegian, it can be hard to stifle that anglophone twitch to use ‘for’ instead of ‘i’.

Cue Duolingo’s Time topic. After bashing out exercise after exercise containing solid Norwegian time phrases, they are starting to come more naturally now. Bad habits start to break down; the brain is getting trained.

It is not just the brain, either. After typing thousands of characters of target language, the fingers start to instinctively know how to form the special characters on the keyboard. No more clumsy fiddling for å, ø or any of their kin!

Duolingo and the lost details

Fluency is not the summit of a perfectly formed mountain. It is easy to sit proudly atop your language mastery and assume that you simply have it covered. Especially the basics.

Hold your horses! Duolingo surprised me by throwing up some shockers that I had forgotten over the years. The gender of Euro and Cent in German (both der, by the way). The correct word for employ or hire (einstellen, not anstellen as I’d been assuming for years). They’re little things, and they would barely impede comprehension. But those lost details make the difference between sounding like a learner and sounding like someone who has really got a grip on the language.

Duolingo has even being training the sloppiness out of my language habits. Learning Norwegian as a German speaker can be incredibly handy, since the languages are fairly close. However, assuming similarity can result in mistakes. Using Duolingo on both of them has thrown up some surprising discrepancies in the gender of cognates between the two languages. Just look at these:

🇳🇴 🇩🇪
cinema kinoen masculine das Kino neuter
ice isen masculine das Eis neuter
keyboard tastaturet neuter die Tastatur feminine
library biblioteket neuter die Bibliothek feminine
mind sinnet neuter der Sinn masculine
sugar sukkeret neuter der Zucker masculine

Where I would previously assume the Norwegian gender was identical to the German, I now know better. Duolingo exercises gave me a systematic arena to find that out. Without it, it might have taken me an age to come across them by chance. No more blindly relying on German for my Norwegian details!

Need for speed…

Many of Duolingo’s activities are translation-based. And a key benefit of this for already proficient linguists is the development of lightning-speed gist translation.

Understanding gist, or the general essence, of a sentence quickly is a key skill for operating seamlessly in a foreign language. Life moves quickly, and we must often act swiftly to keep pace. By adding a timed element to these exercises in its random test feature, Duolingo encourages learners to understand quickly. And true enough, after some time using the platform, you will find yourself getting faster and faster on the keyboard.

Challenge yourself to a few random quizzes (via the dumbbell icon in the app). See how quickly you can translate via a glance at the native language prompt or single listen to the spoken phrase, and work on extending that gist brain. Dictation exercises are also excellent for training you ear to catch things quickly, especially in languages with elision, where words can seem to blur into one another.

Interestingly, translation drilling is a feature of the platform that may well be more useful to language maintainers than learners. Although mass sentence approaches can be incredibly useful for increasing your exposure, pure translation is probably not most efficient sole learning method. The threshold of conversational fluency might be just the right time to jump into Duolingo’s testing tool.

…but recognising road bumps

Travelling the same paths over and over again is a good opportunity to spot where there are potholes. And through regular muscle memory training on Duolingo, you soon find out what your own weaknesses are.

A major lesson for me relates to what psychologist Daniel Kahnemann has called fast and slow thinking. These relate to the two tracks of thought processing humans are hypothesised to have. The first is a snappy, gut-instinct decision making brain based on heuristics or patterns. Its complement is a more careful, deliberating one.

When you start speed translating for gist training, you may be tempted to jump the gun and answer too quickly at first. Perhaps a similar, but slightly different sentence appeared on the screen two minutes ago. Your fast-thinking, pattern-spotting brain might catch only the similar part, remember the answer to the previous sentence, and enter that instead of checking the whole thing. At first, this would happen frequently with me – oops.

With plenty of practice, though, you can train your brain to engage its more deliberated mode whilst still maintaining speed. In essence, it is a lesson in “don’t assume anything”, and a good counterbalance to the speed translation kick.

Learning is a journey, not an outcome

It is tempting to see learning as something with an endpoint. But a commitment to a language involves regular maintenance and audits, which can be hard to put into play if you live outside your target countries.

There may be a hint of polyglot snobbery around using beginner to intermediate tools like Duolingo. But the opportunity these offer for stocktaking and strengthening existing pathways is too good to miss. And sometimes, going back to basics can just be fun, especially when it is gamified!

Already have a strong language amongst the Duolingo courses? Join the XP chase, schedule a daily drill, and see what levelling up can do for you.

Hotspot for politics: inside the cupola of the German Reichstag in Berlin

Hot Politics: cooking up language learning opportunities from election posters

It’s European Parliament election time all over the European Union – even, perhaps, in the UK after recent developments – which means that Europe is awash with slogans and soundbites again. And politics, not always a dirty word, can be great for linguists.

Political sloganism is a tightly-packed linguistic format that lends itself well to brains looking for new vocabulary and structures. As you walk through the placard-plastered streets of Berlin, Paris, Madrid and other European towns and cities, there is much to learn from the language used on all sides and across all arguments.

Billboards have blossomed over Berlin in recent weeks, illustrating the point nicely. I spent last weekend walking around the very sunny German capital, which right now serves up rich pickings for linguistically-minded politicos (or politically minded linguisticos?). A selection of them below give a taste of how voter-targeted, snappy political discourse can double as excellent source material for the language learner. *

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Europe remains our future”

Putting politics to good use

So why is this kind of language so useful?

Language microbites

For one thing, the language of political campaigning is satisfyingly bite-sized and concise. It often includes colloquialisms and phrasing that you can easily reuse in your own speech.

One way to view them is as micro-stimuli for vocabulary learning. They contain just enough content to provide new material to the learner, but are short enough not to overwhelm. That makes them perfect for language learning on the go (especially with Google Translate and Wiktionary handy to look up new words, and Anki ready to add them to your personal lexical bank). Phone in hand, you can positively milk those streets for vocab.

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Learn from people instead of just from books”

Opinion boosters

What’s more, political language is particularly rich in opinion-formulating language. You can synthesise this into your repertoire to spice up your own target-language conversations. Political slogans aim to get quickly to the point. By integrating the same kind of structures into your own speech, you can add flow to your speaking without getting bogged down in over-complex sentence construction.

In fact, that formulation of to-the-point, persuasive language still draws on ancient tricks of the political trade: rhetoric. This ancient art of arguing the case still has a lot to teach foreign language wordsmiths, and you can pick up plenty of tips from street sign politics.

If you can understand Norwegian, a recent episode of the ever excellent language podcast Språkteigen unpacks the political rhetoric behind a recent speech by Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General and former Norwegian PM. Well worth a listen!

Politics on the street: DGB poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: DGB poster in Berlin, “Worked a whole life long – that deserves respect!”

Talking points

For the same reason, poster text can act as a great, opinion-triggering stimulus for speaking with language learning peers or teachers. Do you agree with the sentiment? Why (not)? Truly, the printed messages around us cover all sides of political discourse. Let them prompt you to respond with your own, authentic reactions and counter-opinions.

Politics on the street: Die Grünen poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: Die Grünen poster in Berlin, “Only a social Europe is a strong Europe.”

Zeitgeist barometers

Finally, political campaign slogans also offer a unique snapshot of the current cultural landscape of your target language country. The hot topics of the day can be quite different from those in the world back home. Studying campaign material on the street can help you to read the Zeitgeist of your countries and cultures of interest.

Likewise, learning from material in the now is also a great way to bring your vocabulary up-to-date (especially if you used a rather old text to learn the basics from!).

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin

Politics on the street: FDP poster in Berlin, “Let’s not leave digitalisation to the rest of the world.”


Election watch

All kinds of elections are happening all the time across our target language countries. Be in the watch-out for campaigns and the language they engender. You don’t even need to travel to far-off streets to get your fix, either. Websites and social media feeds can be a goldmine of polemical vocabulary. Very handy for those quiet periods between elections, too!

Not sure what to look out for online? Wikipedia collates useful political party lists for most countries. Here are a few to get you started:

*I should add that the sample of placards I photographed is not meant to imply any political bias – just the route I happened to walk along on that sunny day in Berlin!

Irish countryside (photo by Brian Lary,

Language immersion, Irish style : learning tips from a bilingual state

It feels like I’ve been in Ireland rather a lot, lately. It’s partly due to my fairly late discovery that there is this beautiful, fascinating country to explore only a hop away from my own. But a large part of the pull is undoubtedly the Irish language, which has worked its magic on me recently.

But the magic of Irish is not simply in the beauty of the words and phrases, or the way it seems so fresh and exotic compared to the other European languages I know. It is in the way that Irish is woven into every aspect of life in Éire.

It is simply inescapable.

Irish is everywhere

Although Irish has short of just 150,00 first language speakers, the ubiquity of the language on the street signs and paraphernalia of officialdom in Ireland makes it impossible not to soak up some Gaeilge if you spend any time there.

Road signs are bilingual – and set to become even more so. The nomenclature of government and state departments is almost entirely in Irish. So are the names of many political parties. Add to that the presence of Irish-language media and common Irish words for socialising in English, like sláinte (health / cheers!), and you have the perfect ingredients for an almost imperceptible daily immersion in the language.

The benefits are twofold. If you grew up in Ireland, you are reminded on a daily basis of the Irish you learnt at school. It is impossible to forget what you once learnt! And as a visitor, you see the same words pop up time and again, with a regularity that makes them start to stick.

Surely there is a lesson in there somewhere for all of us linguists, whatever language we study.

Irish inspiration for your own language learning

Of course, there is nothing new under the sun, and this handy language everywhere immersion effect of the bilingual Irish state is no new trick. It is a technique employed, for example, by the excellent in 10 minutes series of textbooks. Each of these colourful beginner guides features pages of sticky labels to affix to objects in your home. Bumping into the words for bed, cupboard, lamp and more is a fun and effective way to learn and reinforce your core vocab.

Now, you don’t have to buy commercial versions of labels to accent your environment with. A sheet of blank labels or post-its and a pen are more than enough to get started. Keep an eye on those expensive furnishings – don’t go ruining the best chair with adhesive vandalism. But be creative: colour-code, find innovative ways to represent grammatical info, add images if they are helpful. If you study more than one foreign language, make your signs as polyglot as you are.

And why stop at labels? You can make your own temporary signs and notices using a wipe-clean whiteboard. Write on your to-do notes and shopping lists in the target language. And if you live with non-linguists, then take a leaf out of the Irish playbook: make them bilingual. Your housemates might even start to pick up a few words.

Although we can’t make our home towns and cities bilingual, we can take a leaf out of Ireland’s book* and make our homes multilingual. Ádh mór ort / good luck!

* Or that of Scotland or Wales!

Pull some Anki magic tricks out of your top hat! (Image from

Anki magic tricks – by serendipity

I’ll make a confession here, as a die-hard Anki aficionado: I haven’t read the manual.

That is, at least, from cover to cover. For one thing, the Anki user guide is pretty thick (in digital terms). For another, I hate long instruction manuals. Instead, I learnt to use Anki by playing. Just dive in, have a go. From new electronic gadgets to household appliances, that spirit of exploration (and perhaps a touch of impatience) has followed me from childhood.

The inclination to tinker still turns up new tricks by the week. There is a lot to explore in Anki.

Back to basics

Sometimes, however, going back to basics can be helpful. A chance leaf through the Anki manual this week turned up some nuggets of wisdom I had long missed.

In fact, what I found out what not at all what I thought I was looking for. It started out as an attempt to tidy up my media folder by using subfolders. Would the media folder cope with these?

Well, partly. It appeared that the desktop and iOS apps behaved quite differently in this case, so I turned to the user guide for help. I didn’t find what I was looking for, sadly. It transpires that subfolders are recognised by the desktop program, but not the iOS app.

But all was not lost! Through my leafing through these online help pages, I did happen upon a really useful trick with filenames. How serendipitous!

Protect template images

To illustrate how useful this accidental trick is, let me set the scene. The topic of sprucing up Anki decks with media has long been one of my favourite topics to cover on this blog. From customising cards with images like flags, to maintaining a tidy media folder with the Tools > Check Media function, it’s par for the course for any Anki-loving linguist.

A customised Icelandic card in Anki

An Icelandic card in Anki –
complete with flag!

That said, I noticed something frustrating with that Check Media function in recent weeks. Each time I let it run to clean up unused image and sound files, my flag images were appearing in the list as candidates for deletion.

This is because they have no link to an actual Anki note – just a template.

Anki lists as unused all media not linked to a note.

Anki lists as unused all media not linked to a note.

To give a concrete example of this, let’s take this note in an Irish vocabulary deck for oráiste (orange), with a linked image file orange.png. That picture is perfectly safe from Anki’s musings, as it was added directly to the note. The Check Media tool will consider it in use by your decks, as it attached to the entry for oráiste. But your Irish flag image, flag_ie.png will only be present on the card template.

An Anki card with a note image and a template image.

An Anki card with a note image
and a template image.

Without being linked to an actual note, Anki flags your flag as unused every time you Check Media. And you don’t want to accidentally hit Delete Unused and get rid of it on a day when your attention is less than optimal!

Now, named as it is, Anki will always consider these files candidates for deletion. But the remedy I chanced across in the user guide is surprisingly simple. All you need to do is prefix any template-only media files with an underscore. Check Media then overlooks them, and they disappear from your list of deletion suggestions.

The Anki media folder, with underscores prefixing template media files.

The Anki media folder, with underscores prefixing template media files.

Two tricks for the price of one

My new Anki magic tricks didn’t stop there. I found the underscore tip, whilst searching for subfolders, in the section on custom fonts in card templates. Yes: it’s possible to go one step further with your customisation, and install fonts that travel around with your decks from device to device. This could be particularly useful if you are creating cards in a language with a very particularly, non-standard script.

Before we get too excited, however, the feature doesn’t yet work on the Mac OS version. It’s also unclear how much support there is in the mobile apps for it. Which returns me to the starting point of my query: subfolders, which also seem to lack full support across Anki’s platforms.

But then, that is the point of tinkering. Through playing around, we somehow find a way. And the user guide is always there when that approach fails!

You really do learn something every day, don’t you? May the spirit of the tinkerer follow you in your own Anki exploits. But dive into that guide now and again – you never know what you might find.

The World (image from

Challenging labels : exploiting globalism for language learning

Enjoying a cold stout from an East London microbrewery for my birthday, I glanced down at the label and caught a real treat. There was the satisfyingly short list of ingredients, repeated in multiple languages on the label.

Hoxton Stout - complete with ingredients in multiple languages!

Hoxton Stout – complete with ingredients in multiple languages!

Geeking over a polyglot product label is an observation that gives away my generation. I belong to that not-so-distant cohort of kids who cross that divide where the Internet flickered to life, the world became smaller and the everyday became truly global.

As a language-obsessed kid, this kind of access to target language was something rare and special. Any snippet of foreign language was valuable. A bit of French, German, Spanish on the back of a packet was a little piece of magic.

In today’s world, languages are everywhere.

It gets harder by the year to remember that it wasn’t always like this. For one thing, legislation on food labelling is (thankfully) tighter today. There’s much more to read on your packets than ever before.

But that explosion in multiple languages is down to a world of increasingly interconnected flows across vast distances. Those flows continue to be a rich mine of source material for linguists, however much we now take them for granted.

At the mercy of markets

The specific languages that we read on the ephemera around us depend on some complex, fluctuating chains. The ebbs and flows of globalism change regularly, and what seems common  one year can disappear the next. Language learning label hunters are at the mercy of markets when it comes to scouring products for vocabulary.

As my Hoxton stout shows, you can strike it lucky. Your chosen tongues can turn up in the most unexpected of places. Norwegian in a Shoreditch pub – who’d have thought?

But sometimes, you have to just work with what the markets give you.

In the UK right now, it is wonderfully easy to find labelling in the languages of Eastern Europe. In the current setup, European supply chains see products manufactured at a more favourable cost in the East, then shipped across the whole continent. To cater for multiple local markets, labels now include the whole gamut of languages in lists of ingredients and instructions.

Incidentally, the Open University has an excellent (now archived) course on this very subject: DD205 Living in a globalised world. Well worth checking out if you are interested in learning more.

Keep an open mind

For a learner of Polish, these arrangements are very welcome. But even if those languages are unfamiliar, or not yet on your radar, perhaps the exotic ingredient words are enough to pique your interest in some of these lesser-studied gems.

After all, perhaps we can respond to languages, as learners, much as consumers to product markets. Our choices about what to learn are broadened, honed, funnelled – and of course, limited – by the materials that land in front of us thanks to these global flows.

Constantly surrounded by a certain language? Work with it!

So how can we bend this tide of globalism, with its flood of goods, to our own language learning?

Hunt them down

Discounters like Poundland are a perfect place to find polyglot goods with global spread, since they are mass-produced for economies of scale without the expensive localisation of premium products. Once you find a rich seam of them, the sheer volume of multilanguage packets will busy you on endless shopping trips.

Globalism takes it one step further, too. Increasingly, whole outlets, as well as individual products from overseas, can find their way to your local High Street. Danish learners are in luck in the UK, for instance: branches of Flying Tiger are popping up in all sorts of cities, chock full of dansk-branded goodies. That’s not to mention Muji for Japanese students. Likewise, lucky French learners can head to L’Occitane for a vocab hit.

Flying Tiger Danish pencils - a linguist's spoils of globalism!

Flying Tiger Danish blyanter
a linguist’s spoils of globalism!

Seek them near – and far

You don’t have to wait for the products to come to you, either. Bringing things back from holiday is a great way to learn from packaging and feed your enthusiasm with the curiosity of others. You can, for example, turn overseas products into quirky talking points with friends. In my experience, few fail to be (at least briefly!) intrigued by Kvikklunsj, the Norwegian incarnation of the KitKat. 🇳🇴🍫😁

No wonder. It’s not only covered in Bokmål, but is a staple of Norwegian everyday life. Language, culture and chocolate – could linguaphiles really ask for more? 😋

Chocolate – and language – are meant for sharing. Delight in the opportunity to show friends and colleagues your world by bringing items like this back as post-trip gifts and explaining what they are. Explaining and teaching to others is a fantastic way to consolidate your own learning. You might even win a few curious converts to the polyglot cause!

Consume them actively

These products are manufactured to be enjoyed. So as well as consuming your chocolate or biscuits with gusto, devour that vocabulary actively too. Look up each item on those ingredients lists and turn them into concrete Anki notes. Make Quizlet or Educandy activities to test yourself on them. Look up sukker, miód and Hagebutte on Wiktionary for more detailed lexical info. Take your search further on the relevant language version of Wikipedia, too.

Always consider polyglot products a jumping point for vocabulary exploration.

To keep track of your finds, log them in an electronic scrapbook. Multimedia notebooks Evernote and OneNote are perfect for this: simply snap your wrappers into a note, and type relevant vocabulary explanations underneath for reference.

At this point, you may shudder: what have I become? Collecting electronic snippings of sweet wrappers and crisp packets? Don’t worry: Just pat yourself on the back and think of the language learning!

Globalism and the global village linguist

Even for those without grand travel plans, foreign language labels are a reminder that there is somebody else out there. Somebody, even, who might like to enjoy that Hoxton Stout in a market far, far away. And if language learners appreciate one thing, it is the nature of today’s global village.

When the tectonic plates of globalism shift – as may happen, for example, in the aftermath of current political changes in the UK – those flows can change drastically. The label languages of tomorrow may be quite different. We may feel helpless in the face of this. But perhaps a more proactive way to view it, as a linguist, is as opportunity: new languages, new cultures, new people.

Life, like language, is in constant flux: adapt, consume and enjoy it.

As contemporary linguists, we enjoy an unprecedented level of foreign language in everyday places. Seize the opportunities, and ride the flows of globalism. You too can get (linguistically) rich quick!

There's no better time to clean up your Anki! (Image from

Anki Spring Cleaning : Brush up your decks!

It’s almost Spring! So doesn’t it feel like time for a refresh? A change is as good as a rest, and if that doesn’t go for our Anki decks too, I don’t know what does.

The thing with well-used tools is that, over time, the lose their sheen. Imperfections creep in, annoying niggles that we ignore for the time being. A note type out of place. An image not showing now and again. It may not interrupt our learning terribly, but after a while they can start to grate.

That’s why it’s a great idea to lay aside some time every few months to clean up your Anki decks.  If you are also a stickler for order, you will understand this declutter itch!

So what is the order of ceremonies for our Anki freshen-up blast? Our tidying spree here will focus on three areas:

  1. Bringing card images into the Anki file rather than external links
  2. Cleaning up unwanted media (without deleting your card images)
  3. Identifying and eliminating rogue note types

Before we start, remember to exercise caution when tinkering around in Anki’s underbelly. Preferably, make a full backup via the Export feature before you start. Better safe than sorry!

1. All-inclusive media

If you know a bit of HTML, it’s easy to spruce up your cards with colour and images. When I customise Anki cards, I often use flags, for instance. For the visual polyglot learner in you, flags can really help keep multiple languages separate in memory.

A customised Norwegian card in Anki

A Norwegian card in Anki

Now, for speed and ease, I often just search for a flag image online and use the URL directly in the card, like this:

<img src="" width="50" height="40" style="margin-bottom: 20px; border: 2px solid black" />

The problem here is not only that the code looks bloated and long-winded. More seriously, when using the decks without internet, the flags are simply absent, since they are downloaded every time.

Bring them home

The trick is to download and place your images inside Anki so they ‘live’ inside your data. Anki has a media folder just for this. Usually, the program places items there automatically when you add sound or images to a card, for example. But you can place them there yourself, too, and refer to them in your card code.

To open the media folder, open your Anki Preferences. Then, select the Backups tab. You should see a link titled Open backup folder – click it.

Anki Preferences

Anki Preferences

Now, the folder it opens isn’t the one we want. We need to go up one directory level, then into the folder called This is where your Anki account keeps all of its MP3, PNG and similar files. With this folder open, it’s a good idea to close the Anki program in the background while we work.

Download and add the flag images and otherwise to this folder. You might want to resize them first. And, if you have lots of them, use a file naming system that keeps things tidy. For example, I prefix flag image files with fl_.

Close the folder once you are done, then reopen Anki. Head to the browser, select a card for customising, and you are set to use simply the file name on its own to link the image:

<img src="flag_it.png" width="50" height="40" style="margin-bottom: 20px; border: 2px solid black" />

Isn’t that so much better?

One note: you can nest files in subfolders and refer to them in your code, like flags/flag_it.png. However, while the desktop app recognises these paths, it seems that the iPhone app doesn’t. As with all these things, it’s worth playing around to see what you can and can’t do (while taking copious backups along the way, of course).

2. Media hangover

While we hang around in Anki’s media emporium, we may as well take the opportunity to keep on cleaning!

For a long time, I wondered why my Anki syncs were so large. It turned out that the media from old, since removed, shared decks were still hanging around. Inexplicably, deleting the deck hadn’t deleted the associated media. Carefully checking and deleting that wodge of unwanted files took multiple megabytes off my sync.

Of course, Anki has a tool for this already, in Tools > Check Media. In theory, it lists unused / unliked media for deletion. But sometimes a hands-on approach is just a bit more reliable. For one thing, your card images, like the flags above, will be listed as unused. They are not attached to cards, but rather your card templates, meaning they fall through Anki’s net. We don’t want the program to delete those!

A nice tidy Anki media folder

A nice and tidy Anki media folder

3. Rogue note types, begone!

Similarly, as with the media clutter, I’d accumulated some note types that meant nothing to me over prolonged use. Some of them seemed to be versions of standard cards but with odd suffixes, like Basic and Reversed Card-accfe. This seems to happen when cards are imported from shared decks, and there is some conflict with existing card types.

Fortunately, it is an easy problem to fix. Head to Tools > Manage Note Types on the home screen of the desktop app. Then, hit Add to create a new note type based on the same template as the strangely named notes.

Adding a new note type in Anki

Adding a new note type in Anki

After the new note type is ready, you can head to the Browse section of Anki. In the left-hand list, you should find an entry for the rogue note type. Click it to view cards assigned to that type, and highlight the notes you want to correct. Then go to Edit > Change Note Type, and change the selected cards to the new, corrected note type you set up above.

After you have done this to all the cards assigned to the strangely-named rogue types, you can go back to Tools > Manage Note Types on the main screen and delete them. Check that it reads 0 notes next to the type before you do – if not, you still need to change the type of some cards unless you no longer want to keep them.

Changing the note type in Anki

Changing the note type in Anki

As you get used to the internal machinery of the Anki app, you can do a regular sweep to keep on top of these foibles. It’s quite satisfying – a little akin to doing regular weeding to keep your garden in order – and will increase that sense of ownership you have over your vocabulary.

So roll up your sleeves, make plentiful backups, and get to Spring cleaning! Your Anki decks will positively shine for it.

Journaling, or writing a diary, can be a wonderful tool in your language learning kit.

Dear Diary… Get personal with language learning through journaling

Sometimes you just have to let it all out. To that end, journaling, or keeping a regular record of the important events in your life in writing, is as old as the hills. From the Latin diurnalis (‘of the day’), diary writing has been both an emotional outlet and historical ledger for countless people. Some, like Samuel Pepys, ended up becoming very famous for it. In fact, the earliest evidence of diary keeping we have dates back nearly 2000 years.

Today, experts continue to expound upon the benefits of journaling. Amongst other things, the positive impact of diary writing on mental health is a popular topic for discussion.

But what if you could tap into some of that power for your own language learning? There are some solid reasons why journaling counts amongst the ultimate daily writing tasks for language learners. Here are just a few of them, along with some tips on getting into language journaling as a total newcomer.

Mine relevant vocabulary

Have you ever found your learning material a little impersonal? Mass-produced language courses cater for the common denominator. The topics you study can sometimes feel a little disconnected from your real life circumstances. As useful as ‘At the doctor’ might be as a vocab theme, it’s not something than many have many learners enthused at first glance.

Conversely, journaling about your own life makes for a beautifully personalised learning journey. As a vocabulary mining exercise, the kind of things you will look up will be very relevant to your life.

Describing people, places and experiences that are important to you increases the salience of each word, and, through that, increasing the likelihood of easy recall. Looking up and claiming those new vocabulary items will give you a real sense of ownership over them.

Conversational relevance

What’s more, the kind of language you use while journaling carries over wonderfully to conversational speech. Think about the kinds of thing we chat to friends about: what we’ve been up to lately, where we’ve been, who we’ve seen and what we think about it all. Journaling is like a masterclass in everyday gossip. Soon, you’ll be chatting over the garden fence in the target language like the best of them!

Connect emotionally with learning

There is no less effective learning than learning for learning’s sake. The brain must regard learning as relevant, and make emotional connections, in order for material to stick. Think of it this way: learning a language should not be about creating a box labelled, say, ‘French’, and filling it up with new things. Rather, it should be about weaving in a whole new set of connections from new ‘French’ material into your existing neural network. Journaling is a fantastic way to stitch together new language material with your existing emotional world.

Make learning cathartic

Journaling can be cathartic. You can work out your everyday frustrations on the page. And by doing so, you start to associate the target language with those warm, fuzzy feelings of emotional release. These kinds of positive associations make for very strong learning experiences!

Motivation to write

Some skills are easily overlooked when learning a language independently. Writing, in particular, is an easy one to neglect. Part of the reason for this is motivation, again; it is difficult for the brain to grasp a point to arbitrary written tasks traditionally given by textbooks and teachers.

Not so with journaling – for all of the reasons above, diary writing can light a fire under some learners’ language bonfires. It can be an absorbing, steam-letting, exciting exercise, and one that you look forward to every couple of days.

The potential to care about what you write about can be nurtured, too. Why not invest in a shiny new Moleskine to journal in, for example? Taking pride in your own writing is yet another route to encouraging your skill to blossom.

A unique souvenir

The best journal writing is the kind that you can look back on weeks, months and even years later, and re-experience your adventures with travel and languages. Writing about your travels in the target language country – in the target language – is a wonderful way to record those moments for posterity.

While you travel, you will also come across lots of new words on public signs, posters and similar. Referencing them in your writing, perhaps even illustrated with pictures, will keep them safe and help you commit useful ones to memory.

Your own secret code

Of course, the chances are that writing in another language lends a whole new level of secrecy to your writing. This takes us back to Pepys, who used a code based on Spanish, French and Italian for some observations deemed a little too sensitive for prying eyes!

Journaling tools and software

Of course, there is nothing quite like keeping a journal the old school way, in that beautiful Moleskine. But there are myriad digital tools to choose from, too.

Two dedicated journaling apps, however, stick out of the pack for me. They have both been designed specifically for the task of diary keeping, and aim to encourage the user to write. They also come with extra features such as password protection, which could be handy if you are writing down your most sensitive secrets – whether or not they are in another language!

Day One

Apple aficionados will certainly want to take a look at Day One. This premium app – currently available only for OS and iOS – is both beautiful simple and clean, as well as feature-packed. If you combine language learning with travel, its geo-tagging of posts makes it a particularly valuable investment for the language journal keeper.

The app can be locked with your fingerprint on a mobile device, which keeps your target language musings nice and private.


Journey offers the same broad features as Day One, but is available on Windows and Android platforms, too. User can add multiple photos and video to entries, which could be put to great use when journaling about your linguistic adventures.

Both Day One and Journey are excellent apps for journaling, with little to separate them. Both are free to download, with premium features unlocked with in-app purchases. Journey uses Google drive to sync its data, which some users might prefer over the proprietary sync service that Day One now uses.

Other text editing software

Of course, you don’t need to use a dedicated journaling app to start documenting your life in the target language. My first digital journal in a foreign language was simply an iOS Pages document. I just added a little Russian to it each day, and soon it had grown to the size of a short story!

These come with their own benefits, too. While the layout is much more general compared to a dedicated journaling app, you also have the freedom to design your own diary format. Additionally, Word Processing apps include more heavy-duty features of interest to linguists, such as spell-checking dictionaries in a range of languages.

There is no shortage of text editing programs to try out your journaling in. What’s more, many of them are free! For instance, Google Docs offers a solid, cross-platform option for no cost at all. As well as the browser-based web app, it is also available as a handy Android or iOS app. Then, of course, is the behemoth of Word Processing, Microsoft Word, also available across a whole range of platforms and pricing plans, from free to paid.

Specialist writing software

Perhaps you feel like something with just a little more creative nudge than the big, bold industry standards. You are in luck again; there is a burgeoning industry in apps designed to encourage and support creative writing.

They are often no-frills, but organised to make writing as simple a process as possible. For newbie diarists and budding authors taking their first steps, that could make the difference between getting into it, or getting overwhelmed and giving up.

Some of the best include:

On the one hand, these kinds of app tend to go off the beaten track of Word Processing as you know it. However, the pay-off is billed as greater support for the creative writing process.

Under lock and key

One last word of warning… Do be careful where you leave that diary. There is nothing like a burning motive to aid comprehension in a foreign language. And needing to know what somebody wrote about you can turn even the most linguaphobic in our midst into eager, urgent learners!

What are you waiting for? Happy journaling!