The World (image from freeimages.com)

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 freeimages.com)

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="https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/0/03/Flag_of_Italy.svg/1500px-Flag_of_Italy.svg.png" 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 collection.media. 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

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!

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

Five ways to maintain variety in your language learning

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

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

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

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

Different platforms

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

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

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

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

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

Different times, different places

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

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

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

Veer off course

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

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

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

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

Dare to be non-linear

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

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

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

Back to the future

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

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

In the wild

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mix it up, max it out

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

Follow the variety principle, and keep your learning fresh!

Keep your language learning colourful - change things up from time to time.

Managing Anki decks with options groups

Well, the football didn’t go England’s way this week. Commiserations, fellow polyglot fans who were also hoping. But when anticlimactic gloom ensues, sometimes you’re motivated to very productive distractions. I’ve spent a useful chunk of time this week optimising my Anki flash card decks.

With Anki, as with all things, it’s easy to get stuck in your ways. When something works straight out the box and does the job, it’s tempting not to tinker. How many people, for example, never touch the advanced settings on a new phone, console or TV?

Change things up a little

That said, sometimes you just need to be brave and change things up a little. The experimenter’s ethos is key: it might work; it might not. But it’s worth trying!

Yes, Anki works straight out of the box. And it does a fantastic job like that. But, with some tweaking, you can fit it around your goals and lifestyle much more neatly. Here’s how I’ve tweaked it to fit my goals and lifestyle more neatly lately.

The problem

The problem is that I rotate a lot of languages in my learning routine. Some I’m actively learning right now. Others I’ve learnt in the past, and want to ‘rest’ them for a while before returning to them in the future. And some of those I want to bring out of their rest phase, and work on maintaining, rather than growing them.

The way I was doing this before was quite efficient, on the whole. I normally nest all my language decks in a superdeck called ‘Languages’. When I was ready to rest a language for a while, I’d simply rename its deck into ‘Rested Languages’. This deck had a learn / review limit of zero in its settings, effectively turning it off. When I was ready to restart that language, I’d move it back. I talk about this cycle in a previous post.

The trouble is, it could feel like a clunky kludge at times. Removing a whole deck from your stack renders the language invisible. It’s almost like you’ve given up on it – it’s no longer in your Anki hall of fame, it no longer feels like yours. I love seeing the long list of languages I’ve worked on in Anki, and removing one smarts a little. It’s like parking you classic, but disused car, in a dark, dusty garage. Or shutting away your pet in a kennel. Or lots of other slightly sad metaphors… In any case, it felt wrong.

If only there were some way of keeping decks where they are, but adjusting the new card / review settings separately from the rest…

Anki Options Groups

Roll on Anki options groups. By default, all the decks in a superdeck have the same settings. If you have a limit of ten new cards a day on the superdeck, all the subdecks share that limit.

However, you can set up separate ‘options groups’, and apply them to individual decks in a stack. This gives you control over the settings for that deck alone, and allows you to keep the deck where it is, but make it behave differently.

Getting started

It’s easiest to do this in the desktop program. Next to each deck, you’ll see a little cog symbol, which you can pull down to access a deck’s options.

Changing the options on a deck in Anki

Changing the options on a deck in Anki

Your decks will be set to the default options to start with. Pull down the cog menu in the top-right corner of the options form to add a new batch of settings.

Adding a new set of options in Anki

Adding a new set of options in Anki

The key setting here is ‘New cards/day’. In this example, I’m setting that to just two, as these are rested languages that I’ve reset all the scheduling on, and am drip-feeding as new vocab at a slow pace each day.

Adjusting options in Anki

Adjusting options in Anki

When you press OK, you’ve created an options group that you can use on your other decks, too. For instance, I’m currently sharing that ‘Minor languages’ group above with my Greek and Hebrew.

Grades of activity

It’s a great way to manage your study if you have lots of languages. It also pays to spend some time deciding what your levels of activity will be before creating options groups. Mine, for example, include:

I can’t underestimate how satisfying – and motivating! – it is to see all the languages I’ve worked on in the same list again. No more dusty attic of lost languages – they’re all in one place again. Give it a go, and get a little bit more tailor-made learning from this amazing, free tool!

Anki - with lots of language decks!

Anki – with lots of language decks!

Polish words in a dictionary

2000 words and still not fluent? My Polish Anki experiment 🇵🇱📱

Would you be impressed if I told you I know over 2000 words in Polish? What about if I told you that I still can’t actually speak Polish?

As crazy as it sounds, it’s true. At least, it was true – I’m working on the speaking part now. But for some time, I’ve been exploring ideas of what fluency really means in language learning. Common sense dictates that, of course, fluency isn’t just knowing hundreds of words in a foreign language. But sometimes, you have to try something to confirm what common sense tells you. So I set off on a little Polish experiment: what if I just learnt all the words first?

Away with words

The language-canny amongst you might already see where this was heading. I should add that I never expected to reach conversational fluency this way. Rather, it was a trial to see just how far mass vocabulary learning can take a learner. There are plenty of courses that focus on rote-learning of vocab (Vocabulearn Polish, for example). Just how effective is the approach on its own, or, at least, as a springboard for more rounded learning later on?

Also, a disclaimer: I wasn’t completely new to Polish. I’ve had a casual interest in the language and culture ever since this formative TV moment at the age of 17. I’d learn a little Polish before, and knew the fundamentals of grammar. But fundamentals is perhaps an overstatement – I knew a handful of set phrases, a couple of noun cases and one verb conjugation.

The process

The whole thing was done pretty much on the cheap. I set about building a list in Anki based on a really old Polish text that I picked up for 50p in a second-hand bookshop: the 1948 edition of “Teach Yourself Polish”. Chapter by chapter, I’d strip the pages for new entries, and add them to Anki, tagging for parts of speech and topic. After I exhausted that (it contains maybe 1500 individual vocabulary entries or so), I turned to other texts I had at home (but never completed), like Routledge’s Colloquial Polish.

As I built the lists, I cross-referenced carefully using tools like Wiktionary, to check for mistranslations, obsolete terms and so on. That’s a pretty important step when using a text from 1948! However, the core vocabulary of a language doesn’t typically change drastically in any 70-year period, so I ended up with a pretty solid list of everyday words in the language (as well as some nice little oddities like jaskółka – a swallow, and borsuk – badger). 🐦

Input, test, repeat

I started doing my daily Anki routine right after my first words had been input. That meant that, for some weeks, I was learning words from early chapters, while typing them in from later ones. I found that helped, in fact; I’d become familiar with words for the first time when entering them, and then have an ‘echo’ of them when they came round in Anki. I certainly had a lot of success with recall that way.

Thankfully, there’s no damage that can’t be undone when learning languages. I’m back on track now with a structured textbook and regular one-to-one lessons with a Polish teacher. Those months learning the entire vocabulary of “Teach Yourself Polish” weren’t wasted – I now have a massive word bank at my disposal (even if learning to put them together is taking a lot of effort!).

Lessons learnt

So what did I learn, besides 2000 words, and how to be a walking dictionary?

Well, it clearly demonstrates two distinct mental processes when it comes to linguistic memory. There is the mental dictionary. And then there is the rule book. They can be learnt in isolation, but to really speak, they need to be learnt together.

Also, without learning them together, your power to retrieve words from memory can be a little mechanical and clunky. I had never practised firing off reams of words in the flow of conversation. I could answer like lightning if asked “what’s the Polish for apple?“. But when the time came to try and speak, my retrieval was just too slow to be useful.

It’s necessary to practise your vocabulary in the full stream of everyday speech; your brain must get used to pulling words quickly from memory as soon as they are needed.

By way of comparison, I notice a huge difference between my Polish and Icelandic. For me, the two languages are approximately at the same level on paper. However, speaking Icelandic in full sentences from the start, I come to a complete, faltering stop much less often.

Curating your own lists in Anki

It was also a great lesson in vocab organisation. Because I’d diligently tagged all of the entered words, I could leverage Anki’s search and filter to pull up custom vocab lists based on topic, or even parts of speech. What are all the adverbs of time I’ve learnt in Polish? Search the deck on ‘tag:adverb’ and ‘tag:time’, and hey presto. What about all the words for colours I’ve learnt? Pop in ‘tag:colours’ and there they all are.

This is important because of the power of ownership in language learning. These were my lists – they have particular salience to me, as I create and curate them. When entering them, I thought hard to think up tags that might be useful for sorting later. It’s quite satisfying to interrogate a mass of words in this way, and see the patterns and orders in them. And it works wonders for helping them stick in memory.

Interrogating lists of Anki words by tag

Interrogating lists of Anki words by tag

Gist king

Even in the absence of full syntax, it is now much easier to get the gist of most Polish texts.  Words alone are certainly not useless; they just serve the user better in a passive capacity.

The boosted banks are also a fantastic advantage now I am learning Polish in a more rounded,  systematic fashion. As I learn new structures, I have a ready-made treasure of words to drop into them.

Incidentally, it gave me a wonderful bird’s eye view of certain differences between Slavic languages, too. As a former learner of Russian, it was fascinating to see where Polish completely matched, or totally diverged from Russian.

An experience to repeat?

Has the experience been useful? Incredibly. Would I do it again? Certainly not with a completely new language that I knew nothing about in terms of grammar.

However, the sense of purpose and diligence it gave me was invaluable – I felt very actively engaged in the process of learning Polish. Not only that, but it was a masterclass in how to use Anki and take ownership of your vocabulary. As such, I shall definitely incorporate the same approach into further learning – only as a complimentary, rather than a principle, strand!

Data laser

Google Sheets magic tricks for language learners

The best language partners not only open your eyes to new words, but to new techniques. It is always the case with excellent iTalki teacher and polyglot friend Marcel Balzer, for example. Never short of fantastic tips, he recently shared a gem of a trick for language learning through the free, online spreadsheet software Google Sheets.

The magic happens thanks to the cross-pollination between Google Products, namely Sheets, and Google Translate. Using a simple formula, you can translate the text contents of one cell into another.

It is very easy to set up. Say you create two columns, A and B, headed German and English. In cell A2, you add a new German word you come across. In cell B2, you have the following formula:

=googletranslate(A2,"de","en")

As soon as the word is entered into the first cell, a handy quick translation will pop up in the second. You may recognise the short codes de and en as international abbreviations, which you can substitute for the languages you are learning. See this link for a full list of them.

You can be as creative with your pairings as you like; I’m currently experimenting with cross-translating vocabulary lists in Norwegian and Icelandic, for example. Great for filling gaps in a weaker language by referencing a stronger one!

Using automated Google Translate in a Google Sheets spreadsheet

Using automated Google Translate in a Google Sheets spreadsheet

Google Sheets Combo power

Google Sheets has many more tricks up its sleeve for the linguist open to a bit of tech exploration, though. With some imagination, you can create some quite powerful learning applications by combining them.

You can, for example, join together the text in several cells to create a single line of text. For example, if you have “j’ai” in cell A2, and “mangé” in cell B2, in cell C2 you could add:

TEXTJOIN(" ",TRUE,A2,B2)

The TEXTJOIN method pulls together the text contents of cells, and requires a couple of arguments, or pieces of information. The first ” ” is a space in quotes, and tells TEXTJOIN what to place between the words it joins together. Here, I use spaces, but you could use hyphens, commas, or whatever else is appropriate. The TRUE simply tells TEXTJOIN to ignore any blank cells that contain no text – if you want them included, change this to false. Finally, there is a list of all the cells containing the content you want to join (A2, B2). This can be as long as you need.

This is useful for words and phrases on their own. But more usefully, I found, was to use this along with target language words to build URLs. To explain why, it might be useful to outline one of the main methods I use to mine for new vocabulary.

The vocab mining process

When I actively seek out and check new vocabulary, I have a step-by-step routine. This will start in one of two ways, depending on which direction I’m learning it in. Sometimes, for example, I will realise that there is a gap in my target language vocabulary by comparing it with my native and other languages. It’s important to actively interrogate your languages like this, always looking out for gaps. Alternatively, I will just come across new vocab already in the target language when I read or listen to podcasts.

Google Translate

Once I have a word to look up, I use dictionary resources (online and offline), as well as Google Translate, to find a translation. Of course, Google Translate comes with many caveats, being a very blunt instrument for linguists. As a former teacher, I feel the pain of anyone marking a piece of homework that has so obviously gone through the Google mangle. However, as a quick vocabulary look-up tool, it is hard to beat.

Wiktionary

Of course, you have to keep your wits about you when using it. And so comes the final step for me: Wiktionary. Wiktionary is a crowdsourced multilingual dictionary, full of detailed entries for countless words in a whole raft of languages. This includes multiple meanings, contextual examples and even detailed etymologies for many entries – all things that provide real hooks for the learner to understand and assimilate new lexical items.

By now, I should have a good overview of how the word fits into the target language. At this point, I will add it to Anki for learning and testing. The Anki entry may include brief usage notes from Wiktionary and other sources.

That’s a fairly simple procedure, but it does involve a bit of jumping around from site to site. However, if you look at the URLs of Wiktionary pages, they have a very regular form. For example:

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/suigh#Irish

You can leverage this kind of regularity when automating tasks. But how?

Chain of command

Enter TEXTJOIN, combined with the power of Google Translate! The chain goes like this: with an English word in cell A2, an automatic translation (say, into Icelandic) pops up in cell B2. Cell C2 then takes the output in cell B2 and builds a link to the relevant Wiktionary page, which I can click to check the entry:

=TEXTJOIN("",TRUE,"https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/",B2,"#Icelandic")

This builds up a full link to a Wiktionary page referencing the word in B2, and the position on the page where the Icelandic entry appears (if it exists). Suddenly, it is a lot quicker and easier to perform my three-step vocab lookup.

Tip of the iceberg

There is a vast array of other methods available in Google Sheets. The above example is a fairly simple chain, but much more complex processes are certainly possible with a bit of creative play. They can be used in myriad ways, too. Google Sheets can be viewed by multiple users at the same time when shared, for example, and Marcel explains that he uses his along with his teacher during online lessons. New words are added to the sheet as they come up, and can be instantly cross-referenced.

Modest Marcel insists that the trick was not his invention, and merely came to him via another helpful polyglot colleague. Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful for the inspiration, which has triggered hours of geekish exploration! I pass it on in the hope of helping more fellow linguaphiles in the same way. Harness the power of Google, and happy learning!

Non-verbal communication, such as hand gestures, are just as vital as speaking when it comes to real-life language use

Speaking without words: optimising your target language with non-verbal communication

Sticking to your target language isn’t always easy. But it’s a rule worth sticking to. Denying yourself the luxury of speaking your native language is vital in building up mental ingenuity and spontaneous, flexible thinking as a linguist.

However, it is a thing easier said than done. Especially when your vocabulary is limited as a language beginner.

Unpolished Polish

My most recent experience of this has been in Polish. I’ve been learning the language quite casually for a while. I really enjoy it, but maybe haven’t had as much time to spend on it as I’d like. As such, my level isn’t particularly high just yet (maybe an A2), but I can get by.

Just over a year ago, I visited beautiful Gdańsk for my first taste of Poland. I knew my Polish wasn’t brilliant, but I was determined to try and use it. Fairly quickly, I realised that this meant mastering more than just words. It was all about supporting my speaking with purposeful non-verbal cues and pointers.

Thrifty speaking shortcuts

You can pave the way for an efficient speaking-signing hybrid language by careful vocab prep. The trick is to learn words and constructions that have a general, rather than a specific application.

Demonstratives are essential – put this (one) and that (one) at the top of your list. Also, non-specific placeholder words like somethingsomeone and somewhere can be linguistic lifesavers when you are short on vocabulary. Add like …like this / like that, and you have an instant tie-in to hand gestures, pointing and more ways to get your intentions across without being a walking phrasebook.

Likewise, many languages have polite constructions for requesting something. Examples include Polish poproszę, French je voudrais, German ich möchte, Icelandic ég ætla að fá, Norwegian jeg vil gjerne ha and so on. These are transactional workhorses that you can use again and again. They combine perfectly with the general pointer words or gestures above.

If you lack those, even just saying the word/phrase for please, followed by the item you want, should work. If that still doesn’t work, gesticulating wildly will eventually yield the desired results. Just don’t be tempted to lapse into English!

Finally, words of possibility are very useful when combined with hand-talk. Just a simple is it possible? or can I?, combined with some pointing, will make it quite clear that you are asking for permission, for example.

Not just crutches

The fact is that planning for all these non-speech cues and helpers prepares you for real communication. How often is that you have tip-of-your-tongue moments in English, or struggle for the right word for something? And, like me, most people use gestures all the time to supplement everyday native language chat. So much of our regular interaction is non-verbal.

These are not simply crutches for the initial stages of language learning – they are part and parcel of human communication. Language is not simply words. It is an process set in a context of bodies, places and intentions. Working with that fact in your first steps learning a new tongue is no bad thing.

Like climbing a mountain, making the most of your language lesson involves preparation!

Acing preparation for a good one-to-one language lesson

I’ve attempted Icelandic a few times in my life. That sounds ominous, that ‘attempted’, doesn’t it? Well, the truth is that I’ve found the language a real challenge each time. I’ve usually learnt it in the lead-up to a trip, then put it to bed for a while after my return. But last year, I decided to collect together the fragments of multiple start-stops and have a proper go at learning it upp á nýtt (back from scratch). 🇮🇸

Now, Icelandic is still extremely challenging to learn. I’d put it on a par with Russian for grammatical complexity, with the added downside that there is very little commercial material for learning the language. And I am far from the perfect student, squeezing my learning in here and there – and, perhaps ill-advisedly, learning several other languages at the same time.

However, over these past few weeks, I feel I’ve turned a corner. This week in particular, I had a one-to-one conversational Icelandic lesson on iTalki. And guess what? It actually went quite well! I’m not fluent by a huge stretch. But I stumbled, faltered and ummed and aahed just a little bit less. For the first time in forever, I feel I can actually speak Icelandic (after a fashion!), and not just rattle off phrases, parrot-style.

In this post I’ll look at how good preparation helped me to get the most from that lesson. I’ll also consider how that preparation could have been better, to squeeze even more out of my hour of speaking time.

Getting started

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I like to sketch out a few broad topic areas with rough vocabulary notes before a lesson. These topics are generally things I’ve been up to since the last session: travel, work, family / friends news and so on. For this lesson, I chose three: commuting to London, booking a trip to Iceland, and how I’d been practising Icelandic in the meantime (finding interesting articles online to translate).

I try to stick to a few rules in these pre-lesson notes. For example, complete sentences are out. Instead, I’ll write out vocab items and partial phrases, avoiding the temptation to create a script to read from. The aim is spontaneous(-ish!) conversation and flexibility as a speaker, rather than rote production of phrases. (Sidenote: there is definitely a place for the latter, especially in the very first stages of learning – Benny Lewis in particular has produced some brilliant guidelines on using scripts as a complete beginner.)

Sample preparation sheet

Here’s my prep sheet for this week’s lesson (complete with notes I scribbled during the lesson itself!). I typed it up in Evernote, then printed it to scribble on during the lesson. (Fellow Icelandic learners, please don’t use this as a learning resource yourself, as there are bound to be errors in it! It is really just my personal, rough scaffold for chatting, warts and all.)

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Preparation notes for an Icelandic lesson

Because I already have a basic level in the language, the notes are slightly more complex or specific words and phrases to fit around that. In some cases it is brand new material, like “eins mikið og hægt er” (‘as much as possible’). I try extra hard to fit these in, as I’m more likely to memorise them through active usage. Other items include conversation cues, or main points of a story I want to tell. These simply keep me speaking and prevent the conversation from drying up.

This approach works a treat for me. It gives the start of the lesson a focus, so we can get right into it. It also provides the teacher with a lot of student-produced language – perfect for getting your grammar tweaked and vocab suggestions thrown your way.

Room for improvement

Of course, nothing is perfect. One shortfall was my lack of subject material. I’d managed to prepare three general “things I’ve been up to” sections, but started to struggle for novelty after 20-25 minutes, repeating myself a little. That wasn’t a problem, as there are always alternative activities to do in a lesson. But perhaps five or six rough prepared subjects to chat about would have bridged the gap.

Also, what you can probably tell from my notes is that I don’t always follow my own advice about brevity. Some of my lines are almost sentences. Not only that, but they tend to read in a slightly linear way. Like a script, an order is implied: I did A, then I did B, then C happened, then D will happen. I didn’t leave myself much room for improvisation.

Now, I wasn’t robotically reeling of those sentences in that exact order. But in future, I could make them even more efficient. As they are, they’re a little more fixed and restrictive than I’d like them to be. As a Social Sciences student, I found Tony Buzan’s mind-mapping techniques a fantastic support in note-taking; I think they’d work a treat in this scenario, too.

More than just the lesson

Lastly, what I haven’t mentioned above is all the other prep you do between lessons. The one-to-one hours are just single, brief points in your language learning schedule. Between lessons, you have to make a success of self-directed, wider learning, too. As I mentioned above (and in my chat notes!), I’d been a good student that week. I’d actively vocab-mined and exposed myself to lots of Icelandic in use by seeking out and translating online articles. (Nothing high-brow, mind – most of them were about the twists and turns in Iceland’s journey to pick a Eurovision song!)

No lesson is perfect (since no student is!), but I enjoyed this one and got a lot from it. Not every lesson goes so well, of course. Time is the biggest constraint on prep, and I’ve lost count of the occasions I wish I’d spent more of it on getting ready. Without exception, the better prepared you are to use language actively in a one-to-one, the more rewarding it is.

Books on a bookshelf

Bilingual books: tips and tricks for free online reading material 📚

Thanks to a recommendation from another polyglot friend, I’ve been exploring bidirectional translation as a new language learning method lately. It involves working with parallel texts in your target and native languages to strengthen vocabulary and grammar. The only snag: it can be difficult to source books with dual language versions of interesting texts.

Now, Penguin offers a good range of bilingual story books available in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, but an eager linguist will quickly eat through those and be left wanting.

Blockbuster books – in miniature

However, it is possible to get high quality translations of popular texts in many different languages, completely free. The trick is to use Amazon’s ‘free sample’ feature for Kindle books. This allows you to have the first few pages – sometimes a whole chapter or two – sent to your registered device. Simply browse the Kindle bookshop for foreign language titles of interest, then click ‘Send a Free Sample’ on the product page.

To help root out some titles, you can filter Kindle books by language. You can then filter out the fiction books (here are the French ones, for example), or look for non-fiction books that fit your own interests.

What use is a few pages of a story? Isn’t it frustrating to come to a sudden stop after one or two chapters? Well, it doesn’t have to be. If you choose translations of books you are already familiar with – Harry Potter books are a popular choice – then you already know the stories, and are just enjoying parts of them again in your target language. And, of course, if you really like them, you can purchase the full versions from Kindle later.

Pott(er)y for books

I’m like a broken record on the benefits of translated children’s books – particularly the Harry Potter series – for language learners. But they’re great language learning helpers for so many reasons:

  • the stories are familiar, so you can use gist make educated guesses about new vocabulary
  • the language is not particularly complex, as the intended audience was originally youngsters (particularly the early volumes)
  • the stories are broken up into fairly short chapters – an ideal length for the focus of a lesson or learning session

As a starting point, here are links to the first Harry Potter books on Amazon Kindle, in a range of languages. As an extra bonus, most of these titles can be borrowed in full at no cost if you are a Kindle Unlimited member!

And, of course, you can download the matching excerpt from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in English, so you have a perfect bidirectional pair.

Kindle samples are a goldmine for linguists to root around in. That goes particularly for those seeking texts for bidirectional translation, but more generally for anybody looking for quality, interesting reading material. Have you come across any gems? Share them in the comments!