The Linguascope Conference 2023 : Inclusivity in Language Teaching

The Duty of Inclusivity : Matching Language to Social Reality

This Saturday saw the Linguascope conference, fast becoming a trusty fixture in the language learning calendar. This year’s edition took place at the fabulous Mama Shelter in London, and as always, the event is a nice opportunity for us resource bods to learn from classroom teachers’ experience.

The overarching theme of the 2023 edition was diversity and inclusion. The precept is simple: no student should feel left out by the curriculum, unable to identify themselves in its content. It’s high time. After all, language use in the wild is already changing to reflect that updated social reality, not least in terms of pronoun usage. It follows logically that the teaching of language should mirror how it is being used.

Framing Inclusivity

Sadly, it’s still a topic that is politically charged. The reasons are many, but fundamentally, it seems that societal change triggers defensiveness, and defensive viewpoints are, in turn, prone to becoming entrenched. The fact that the change implicates identity, the hues that define our very existence, doubtlessly plays its part in how emotive it is.

And there were discouraging stories of friction and pushback amongst the conference delegates. Not amongst students, but from parents, guardians, boards, and other staff. It’s easy for us to judge them, but harder – and undoubtedly more compassionate – to understand that fear prevents some from welcoming difference.

But the flip side is the overwhelming positivity in stories of otherwise marginalised students feeling welcome and valid in the shared learning space. Their reactions show that inclusivity is less a political agenda than simply a truer reflection of social realities. What’s more, that heart-opening positivity is double-sided. Unless you live in a box, you will encounter diversity in the real world. Inclusive learning materials prepare us better to meet that with acceptance, tolerance and love, no matter how homogenous our own environments are.

As one wise voice proffered at the conference, inclusivity is not a question of promoting, but simply of representing. That’s the key: being inclusive doesn’t make change, but simply reflects it.

Individual Duty

It’s a topic that raises questions for our own, individual learning too. How welcoming and validating are our target language skills? Is the language we learn representative of diverse ways of being? What social reality is reflected in the resources we used to learn French, German, Spanish? There’s a duty for us to audit our sources, and stay in the loop, to ensure we’re not hanging onto any linguistic fossils.

It’s an issue that came up in a recent Greek lesson of mine. The conversation turned to race, and I came completely unstuck. I realised that I lacked all tools in my target language to talk about race in anything but the most unnuanced, bald terms. In this case, honesty, humility and a good teacher bridged the divide and filled the gap. But it’s even better to preempt the need and do that work in advance.

Linguascope’s inclusivity conference is a reminder to us all to build that into our language learning. 

On that note, I’ll end with a link to the excellent inclusivity resources at Twinkl, signposted by the brilliant Sharon Barnes in a very on-point and thoughtful talk. Proof of the heaps of support out there for anyone hoping to make all feel welcome on their learning journey.

Anki Enhanced Cloze

“Cloze” to Perfect : Extending Anki’s Gapfill Activities

Ever had that realisation that there was a better way to do what you doing all along, one hiding under your nose the whole time? Well, that was my week of epiphany with Anki.

Anki has included cloze functionality pretty much from the get-go. If you’ve not come across cloze before, it’s basically fill-in-the-missing-word. Your card pops up, and instead of providing the whole answer, you just recall the missing section.

Cloze is a great tool in your learning box to ward against the isolation issue with vocab. Learning items in context is just as (if not more) important than learning individual items. If you drill ich habe einen Hund (I have a dog) in German, you’ll not only pick up Hund, but a handy sentence frame and grammatical information to boot. Vocab plus structure is always a winning combo (and why mass sentence drilling is so powerful).

Native Cloze in Anki

Anki’s native cloze capabilities are simple enough to use. To make a cloze card, you simply type in your sentence with the gapped words surrounded by braces, along with a special tag to signify the gap:

Ich habe einen {c1::Hund}.

In the toolbar, there’s even a button to do this for you – just highlight your word to gap, and click […].

There are even some extra tricks in there, right out of the box. For instance, you can add a hint that appears in the blank before you guess:

Ich habe einen {c1::Hund::noun}.

You can add several gaps, or sets of gaps. For instance, if you change a couple of them to c2 instead of c1, they’ll be treated as separate question sets:

Ich {c1::habe} einen {c1::Hund} und er {c2::ist} sehr {c2::lustig}!

When you come to test them, the c1 and c2 words will appear on separate cards. Really handy to drill more complex material.

As great as it is, though, it’s not perfect. For one thing, Anki hides and shows all your grouped gaps at once. Not great if you have two or three gaps on one card, and want to test your recall of them in their own right, rather than in one fell swoop.

Enhanced Cloze

Thankfully, the Anki Open Source community comes to the rescue. Anki Enhanced Cloze retains all the native functionality that Anki already did so well. But it also allows for individual hide/show within a set, adds a number of useful extra fields, a main/pseudo cloze distinction and some much nicer formatting.

A screenshot of a learning flashcard made with Anki Enhanced Cloze

Anki Enhanced Cloze

The resulting card is so much more flexible for self-testing, and looks much nicer, too. And the best thing? Card creation follows exactly the same method as Anki’s native cloze, along with the extra little hint trick. It’s a very quick way to make your cloze cards a lot more effective.

Needless to say, I’ll be spending some time this week converting my older cloze cards to the newer format. It’s one of those cases where a better way of doing things was hiding under my nose the whole time – the add-on has been around since 2021. Ah well – better late than never!

False equivalencies - the equation 1+1=3. Image from freeimages.com.

Equivocal Equivalencies : Avoiding the X=Y Trap in Language Learning

When starting out with language learning, it’s tempting to assume a one-on-one correspondence between your native and target language for everything you come across. It seems like a simple game of equivalencies: X equals Y. But you quickly learn that it’s not always as simple as that. Different languages carve the world up in subtly different ways.

It’s most obviously the case with content words. For instance, ‘sad’ in English covers both the person feeling the emotion, and the situation causing it. In Greek, it’s two words: λυπημένος (lipiménos, the former, with a Greek passive adjective ending) and λυπηρός (lipirós, the latter). Now that would have scuppered Elton John’s sad sad situation.

But function words differ, too. Grammatical categories that have lexically crumbled into each other in English remain resolutely separate in other languages. Take the word where. In English, you can use this as an interrogative:

Where is the bank?

And you can use it as a relative:

I know where you are.

Same word, two completely different functions. It leads English monolinguals to assume that they’re equivalent, identical. For sure, their function is related – both referencing place – but they’re performing different jobs, respectively standing in for missing information and joining two clauses.

False Equivalencies

Something that took me a little time to get my head around was the same situation in Scottish Gaelic. The interrogative and the relative are different words here, càit(e) and far:

Càit a bheil e? (Where is he?)
Tha fios agam far a bheil e. (I know where he is.)

Norwegian behaves in a similar way, although with a further complication. Generally, hvor is the interrogateive, and der the relative:

Hvor er du? (Where are you?)
Jeg vil være der du er. (I want to be where you are.)

But when a question is implicit, the relative is just hvor, as in English:

Jeg vil vite hvor du kommer fra. (I want to know where you come from.)

Incidentally, it’s the same situation with Norwegian then, which is variously når or da, according to the rule above.

Interesting tidbits of language, for a geek like me / us. But they serve as a reminder to delve a little deeper into usage using a resource like Wiktionary when you learn a word that seems to correspond neatly to one in your native language(s).

It may be less than half the story!

Close-up of the cover of Routledge's Hindi : An Essential Grammar (2022)

Hindi : An Essential Grammar [Review]

Hindi has sat comfortably amongst Routledge’s Essential Grammars range for some time, offering students the concise, systematic grammatical treatment the whole series is known for. The title appeared in its first edition back in 2007, so a fresh, updated version was a very welcome addition to bookshelves at the end of 2022.

Anyone familiar with my own bookish exploits will know that the Routledge Essential and Comprehensive Grammar series are close to my language lover’s heart. They’re all excellently researched reference and study works, supported throughout with authentic, real-world language. Recent editions have benefitted from an even clearer layout and eye-friendly typesetting, and the Hindi title is no exception. They’re very easy on the reader, particularly in terms of line spacing and table layout.

The book takes the familiar parts-of-speech approach, chunking grammatical elements into particularly brief, easily manageable chapters. This makes for real indexical ease, obvious from the detailed, seven-page contents section. No wading through an amorphous Nouns chapter here! But it’s great for targeted study, too; you could easily tackle a whole section in an hour-long study session, either independently or with a teacher.

As well as the usual amendments and corrections, this second edition offers extended explanations on several aspects of Hindi. These include extra material on flexible word order, ergativity, and politeness distinctions. As with other updates, such as the second edition of the Greek Essential, it’s great to see Routledge’s commitment to keeping the whole series relevant.

Script Support

The book is a winner on another important front, too: alternative script usage. To be fair, if you’re serious about learning Hindi in the long-term, then you’ll probably have started with Devanagari well before picking up this grammar. You might even have studied Devanagari before your Hindi journey like some (ahem). Devanagari is no prerequisite to learning to speak Hindi, of course, and if you’re in it for the casual dabbling, you might not have the time or inclination.

With this grammar, it’s no sweat at all. You can dive into any section of the book and read examples in Devanagari or Latin transliteration. The transliteration is extremely straightforward, too, using capitals to represent retroflex consonants, and the tilde for nasalised vowels. And the transliteration takes nothing away from the book’s commitment to both lanes; this edition still concludes with a substantial section on contemporary script usage, including current trends and recent changes.

Transliteration throughout might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s really not a given with Hindi primers. I’ve been working with Teach Yourself Hindi Tutor recently, and although it’s a truly fantastic and valuable resource, it requires proficiency in Devanagari from step one. Similarly, many beginner’s textbooks provide Latin support only so far, before switching to script after the initial chapters. For some, native script is a choice that definitely comes later on.

All in all, my verdict won’t be a surprise, considering my understandable fanboying of the series: I think this one’s just swell! For Hindi scholars, Indo-Europeanists and dabblers alike, Hindi : An Essential Grammar is a solid title in the series, substantially improved in its new edition.

ChatGPT screenshot

ChatGPT for Language Learners

The buzz around AI imaging seems only five minutes ago, yet there’s another brand new tool creating ripples. And this time, it speaks.

ChatGTP is an AI model that processes natural language, making sense of instructions and carrying them out. You could think of it as a kind of ask me anything bot, and it went truly viral at the end of last year thanks to its uncannily human-like language abilities

Of course, it didn’t take long for the language community to see the potential. The algorithm has already captured the imaginations of teachers, who are using it to great time-saving effect in generating quick and simple lesson plans. No surprise, then, that the polyglot community has followed suit in exploring the new tech’s potential for supporting language learning.

As with all tech, the best way to assess it for yourself is to get your hands dirty. In that spirit, I headed to OpenAI.com’s ChatGPT portal to see for myself what it could do. Note that this might be easier said than done right now; lately, you’re more likely to see the message ChatGPT is at capacity right now as the fellow curious inundate the platform with requests.

ChatGPT for (Language) Beginners

I started off at the place that seemed most fitting: at the beginning. What about some learning tips for a newcomer to a specific language, for a specific purpose? ChatGPT turned out solid phrase lists, and – impressively – not always the most obvious cut-and-paste choices. Accompanying advice was on the whole quite generic, but very sensible and practical:

ChatGPT screenshot

What I love is the variability; ask the same question twice, and you’re unlikely to get the same answer. There’s always some overlap, but it’s interesting to see how suggestions vary from answer to answer:

ChatGPT screenshot

Occasionally, you get a bit of extra advice for free, too:

A screenshot of a conversation where the user asks the AI engine ChatGPT for French tips for a trip to France.

ChatGPT seems really good at making what we might call potted lessons like these, which explains its popularity as a quick lesson plan generator.

Off the Beaten Path

Where it struggles, I found, was when you stray from the mainstream path – presumably, fields where the algorithm finds much scarcer material to work with. For example, Explain how tense works with Modern Hebrew verbs produced a very convincing piece of text that sounded like it came straight from a Routledge Comprehensive Grammar. Unfortunately, the Hebrew itself was an absolute hash, omitting any mention of vowel patterns, and focusing on suffixes, as if Hebrew were a typical Romance language or similar.

The problem, I’m guessing, is a paucity of sources. I’m not sure where it cobbled the points together from, but they seemed like a very bad, rookie guess at how to express tense in Hebrew, based on a very limited set of observations. Perhaps I’m being harsh; experimenting with different question phrasing might have improved things, and I’m impressed enough that it dealt so well with Greek.

It’s early days, though. Development is entering a new stage, backed by some big money, and refinements will come thick and fast. Crucially, the spark is already lit; ChatGPT has captured imaginations, and it already looks like a truly helpful and practical tool is emerging. 

Have you taken your first steps with ChatGPT as a language learner? Let us know how you got on in the comments!

The Study of Language by George Yule. Eighth Edition, Cambridge University Press.

The Study of Language, 8th Edition [Review]

New year, new books. Well, we have to live by some adage don’t we? And perhaps it’s the time of year, but shiny new tomes in the postbox do have their appeal. Appropriately, this week’s doormat delight was George Yule‘s essential Linguistics primer The Study of Language, refreshed and updated in its 8th iteration.

It’s a text with some measure of nostalgia for me, appearing on a preliminary reader list ahead of my own MSc. And it has doubtless done so for many other courses, having become something of a modern classic; it offers a solid and systematic overview of all branches of the field, from historical linguistics to second language acquisition. If your university offers a course on it, there’s probably an introductory chapter on it in The Study of Language. It’s as comprehensive as it is reliable.

An Interactive Text

It’s been a good two years since the last edition, so what’s changed? One key enhancement is a considerable expansion of the end-of-unit study questions and tasks. It’s something that always made the volume perfect for working in tandem with programme instructors, now even more so. Activities range from simple questions to more exploratory project-based tasks, providing ample independent learning opportunities.

An example from one of the sections of study questions in The Study of Language by George Yule (8th Edition, Cambridge University Press).

Extensive study questions cap each of the concise, snappy chapters.

There is additional online support on the Cambridge website, too, which has seen a refresh along with the core text. This includes a substantial, 152-page PDF study guide for students, adding a good deal of value to the course.

Keeping It Current

The commitment of Cambridge University Press to keeping this key text up-to-date is impressive. Several of the chapters have gone through major rewrites to reflect current research. This is immediately evident in the further reading lists, replete with pointers to fresh, new sources.

The chapter on Second Language Acquisition is a case in point. Clearly it’s quite a dear topic to my own heart, and (predictably) one of my first stop-offs. But even I spotted some interesting new references to follow up in the mix, in the form of recent papers and monographs. It’s great to see the last couple of years represented in the lists of publications like this, underscoring the fact that this is a bang up-to-date edition.

The Study of Language is a broad, engaging and highly readable introduction to language sciences. It equips the reader with a robust roadmap to ensure they aren’t overwhelmed by unfamiliar buzzwords and jargon on starting out on a formal Linguistics course. This eighth edition is a very welcome continuation of that, ensuring that students get the very best and most up-to-date start possible.

Christmas in Macduff, Aberdeenshire

Merry Language Christmas

And it’s here! A day of cheer, jolliness, rest and restoration for many celebrating Christmas. And, perhaps for once, the languages take a back seat (for a very short while). That is, between the language learning book gifts (both old and brand new).

It’s a time (if you’ve time, between presents and Christmas dinner), to consume some Christmas content not only from home media, but from your target language countries. As a pre-Internet kid fascinated by languages, somehow managing to access TV or video from abroad seemed almost a Christmas miracle. These days, it’s as easy as opening a browser. Trying never to take that for granted, I’ve been dipping in and out of NRK‘s offerings over the holidays. It’s definitely a time to feel grateful for all the opportunities we have as learners today.

Likewise, 90s Rich would go to some lengths to procure foreign-language pop CDs, let alone any Christmas fare. It was either find a willing penpal, or travel to the country itself. Now? I can gorge to my heart’s content by flicking on Spotify. Spoilt for choice by it all, I’ve discovered gems that have taken their place comfortably and naturally next to Merry Christmas Everyone.

Christmas of Moments Past

And as a new year approaches, it’s time to take stock of all the language moments we’ve had over the past year. For me, it was a Brum full of languages that took the prize. But it’s also the little moments of spotting languages everywhere, like finding quirky, multilingual language learning curios, enjoying the linguistic shenanigans of Henry Higgins in a brilliant production of My Fair Lady, or cheering on Westlife’s Nicky Byrne as a fan taught him what Gute Besserung meant in a card he read out live on stage.

Westlife’s Nicky Byrne reads a get well card for Mark Feehily from a German fan at a concert in Birmingham, December 2022. Photo by Richard West-Soley

Westlife’s Nicky Byrne reads a get well card for Mark Feehily from a German fan at a concert in Birmingham, December 2022

Whatever your language moments of 2022, we hope you look back with contentment and fulfilment. And, as 2023 approaches, with a sense of excitement for what is yet to come.

Merry Christmas to all celebrating – and a great 2023 to all!

Charlie the dog feeling the Christmas cheer in front of a plate of cakes, December 2022.

Charlie the dog wishing all a Merry Christmas 2022 – and hoping for a cake or three.

Filipino : An Essential Grammar, published by Routledge in October 2022.

Filipino : An Essential Grammar [Review]

Only the other day was I heralding the appearance of two brand new Routledge Essential Grammars – and just in time for Christmas, too. So what should land on my doormat this week but the very latest addition, Filipino : An Essential Grammar? There’s no such thing as coincidences, I hear you cry!

Any new language is a welcome addition to Routledge’s solid family of language learning texts, and with this one, it’s a double whammy; it pips the publisher’s own Colloquial series, which still lacks a Filipino / Tagalog title. For a language with upwards of 80+ million speakers worldwide, the book plugs a textbook gap with the solid, practical approach we’ve come to love from the Essential collection.

Filipino : A Concise But Comprehensive Essential

At just shy of 200 pages, the title, penned by Sheila Zamar, is one of the lighter volumes in the series (check out the brilliant Icelandic edition for a true doorstop of a book, for comparison). That said, it’s by no means light on content, divided into well-defined parts-of-speech chapters. Each of these is concise and snappy, but still chock-full of examples of language in use.

Filipino : An Essential Grammar, published by Routledge in October 2022.

As a self-confessed verb obsessive, it’s extremely satisfying to see four very chunky sections (nearly half the book) taken up with a systematic presentation of the verbal system. It’s what you’d expect, given the quite different (and fascinating) classes of Austronesian conjugation, but the exposition and explanation is handled with neat, logical progression. Handily, glosses are provided alongside many of the examples, so you can see exactly what is going on in a given sentence.

(Type)set for Success

If you’re a fan of the series you’ll have already noticed, but I should add a word or two about the excellent formatting of the whole reissued grammar series. From the clean, sans-serif fonts to the clutter-free setting of the tables, the new editions are all exceptionally clear and easy to read. The block-colour covers in blues, aquamarines, crimsons and bricks look both artsy and academically serious at the same time, although that leaves me with one mystery: what do the cover colours signify, if anything? My first thought was language groups or families, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Perhaps authors have the option to choose their own favourite as a wee thank you for their work. Answers on a postcard in the comments.

Filipino : An Essential Grammar is certainly worthy of its essential title in a not-so-crowded textbook field for the language. Heartily recommended for serious learners and casually interested polyglots alike!

 

An array of neon signs of nonsense words on a wall. Image generated by the Stable Diffusion AI algorithm.

Polyglot in the Machine: AI for Language Learners

AI is the order of the day lately. Have you seen how many fantasy photos have been filling up Instagram lately? Thanks to the now wide availability of open source AI algorithms, some powerful computing power is in the hands of users courtesy of apps like Dawn AI and Lensa. Type in a few words, and the computer does the painting.

It’s new tech, opening new possibilities alongside new ethical challenges that users are gradually becoming sensitive to. But the benefit to individual language learners here is apparent very little imagination stretch. First and foremost, these algorithms parse human language. So why not, for instance, type in some target language – say, ein Hund mit grünen Augen (a dog with green eyes) – and see if the picture matches what you meant to say? It should act as a kind of machine validation that the language you produce makes sense.

It already works to a point with some languages. Models like Dall-E (seen at work below in the web-based Craiyon.com) cope reasonably well with non-complex, non-English prompts.

A screenshot from Craiyon.com, a web-based AI image generator built on DALL-E Mini.

It can be hit and miss, but Craiyon understood my German for the most part!

So it works – up to a point. The current stumbling block is linguistic and cultural bias. For a start, models like Stable Diffusion were initially developed and trained with English input. And as one web experimenter shows, non-English results can leave a lot to be desired, with a definite advantage for Western European languages. This isn’t surprising, given that the technique samples from pre-existing web content; the predominance of certain languages means there is a lot more of that to learn from.

Ai Work In Progress

It’s clear these techniques are nascent and emerging, as most casual users will admit. Even if English is your target learning language, for example, images can frequently be so off the mark that you may question whether it understood a single word of your prompt.

Things are improving, though, especially with regular updates to the Stable Diffusion model. There are even a couple of language augmentation projects floating around in beta, including. one that adds ‘Japanglish’ capabilities to the current algorithm, overcoming one particular cultural blindspot.

And, if you have the skills, you can add to many ongoing open source projects to extend and finesse the capabilities of AI algorithms. I’m sad to report that that isn’t in my skillset, but it’ll be interesting to follow how this develops over the coming months!

Christmas is coming! Make it a language learning one.

Christmas Books for Language Lovers : 2022 Edition!

Christmas is coming, and the books are getting fat – with expectations that kindly language learners will come along and buy them.

A strained metaphor, I’ll admit. But if you’re still searching for that special Christmas gift for the linguist in your life – even if that happens to be you – then 2022 saw a few new and updated titles from language course publishers that have always been good to us.

Here are some of my favourite stocking fillers of the year.

Routledge

Ever a mainstay of self-paced language learning, Routledge released a welcome new edition of Colloquial Irish this year. For sure, that made for a quieter year than 2021, which saw new Chinese, Hebrew and Zulu editions, but it’s nonetheless great to see the Irish course with a new lick of paint. MP3 listening material for all courses is available online, too, if you fancy a taster of what they have to offer.

In other news, the publisher also released a couple of brand new titles in its Comprehensive and Essential Grammar series. What makes this particularly exciting for polyglots and language aficionados is the off-the-beaten-track nature of the languages themselves.

Principally, the recently extinct Máku language of Venezuela and Brazil now has a Comprehensive Grammar thanks to the hugely important work of researchers working with the last two speakers. It’s an incredible opportunity to explore a linguistic heritage very nearly lost forever. In the Essential series, Filipino now counts amongst the ranks, along with a brand new edition of the Hindi grammar.

Teach Yourself

It’s been a busy year for Teach Yourself with Olly Richards’ growing set of graded readers. There’s been a flurry of updates and new editions, with Irish added to the beginners’ range (Irish learners are particularly lucky this year, it seems). Japanese gets the intermediate treatment, while Italian and Spanish get a whole new volume of beginners’ stories. All very welcome Christmas stocking fodder.

In Three Months

2022 also saw the reissue of some familiar old friends of the language learning world. In January, DK freshened up its in Three Months range with smart new typesetting and jackets. Under the Hugo banner for several decades, the courses are still solid introductions or refreshers, now with free online audio. And they look pretty nifty in their new clothes – not the most important aspect of course, but we do love a smart new book!

These days, the DK in Three Months range now focuses on a few mainstream learning languages rather than the original Hugo set (which you still pick up for a steal at second-hand outlets). These new editions are available in colourfully-bound Dutch, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish versions.

What a great little cache of 2022 releases, for Christmas or otherwise. Which titles have I missed? Leave your language learning gifting ideas in the comments!