The Buntùs Cainte book - a bit of language learning nostalgia!

Brewing Up Nostalgia : Buntús Cainte

My love of old language books is no secret. I’ve been harping on about my single-handed attempt at recreating the language section of my local Waterstones, circa 1993, for ages. So it’s no surprise that I snapped up another old course when I spotted it in a bookshop this weekend.

The only thing is, it’s brand new.

Well, new is subjective. It’s actually a reprint of a decades-old Irish Language course, Buntús Cainte (Foundations of the Language). It’s been a well-selling title for years, not least for the language; people seem to love it for the nostalgia of the original programme as much as the content.

The title was originally a 1960s TV show on Irish state carrier RTÉ. Like other national broadcaster courses such as the Gaelic offerings from the BBC, Can Seo and Speaking Our Language, the show was supported by printed materials that you could pick up at your local bookshop. All of them had a warm, friendly approach to “language learning in your living room”, which is probably why they still stir up such nostalgia.

The book itself is still a great resource for learning basic Irish. It’s straightforward chalk ‘n’ talk if you like that kind of thing, with vocabulary and phrase lists and brief grammar examples. It comes with two CDs of audio materials – pretty indispensable if you’re new to Irish orthography. And at less than 10€, it’s all a bit of a bargain.

Fancy a Brew?

But the loveliest thing about it is that nostalgia it brews. The cover font, still in its groovy 1960s typeface and colour scheme, is a joy, as are the of-their-time stick cartoon illustrations throughout.

Buntús Cainte

It’s a reminder that good language learning materials aren’t a sum of their content alone. They’re about the feelings they inspire, the memories they connect you back to, the vibe you get from them. Clicking with a course is a holistic process. It’s no wonder that it’s still one of the best-selling Irish books.

In a similar vein, there was a heart-warming documentary on the making of Speaking Our Language recently, which has all the same feels. Worth checking out if you want to know how these institutions of educational TV work their way into our hearts.

In any case, it’s great to find an old gem of language learning. Even greater that it’s a fresh, new print that I don’t have to clean upI don’t have to clean up, for a change!

Sport and languages - the Sandwell swimming venue for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Languages and Sport : Cast the Net Wide!

It’s not all about the languages. Sometimes, something else comes along to catch my attention, and this last ten days, it’s been sport. The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games have transformed my home city in a bustling hub of joy. And, as ever, there’s a way to bend it back to languages. Bear with me…

After a stint as a volunteer performer in the Opening Ceremony, I was lucky enough to have a games pass to attend the sports. Now, as someone who was rubbish at PE at school, I didn’t know where to start. Since those difficult childhood years, I’ve made up for it a little bit. I gym now and again. And of course, I do the obligatory big of flag-waving sport, when there’s a big international tournament on. Surprise, surprise – anything with flags gets the Eurovision fan in me going.

But beyond that, I haven’t a clue.

So, to make the most of my sporty fumblings in the dark, the approach I adopted was a bit of everything. The aim? To cast the net wide, and see what I liked. And I liked a lot… 3×3 Basketball, Beach Volleyball, Hockey, Powerlifting… it turns out that there’s a lot more to sport than school football and cross-country running!

The thing with ‘sport dipping’ is that it’s a lot like my approach to languages: exploration and dabbling. Like watching lots of new sport, you might call language dabbling a spectator-driven approach. You take in bits and pieces here and there to build up a very broad picture of what’s out there. After that, you can choose to go big and become a superfan of one or two, if the fancy grabs you.

In any case, I’ve come out of this week feeling vindicated in that approach to new things, whether sport or languages. My language brain is impatient for some attention, having been in maintenance mode during the Summer madness. But it can take it now and again.

It’s a good sport, after all.

Languages and sport : Beach volleyball at the Smithfield site for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Beach volleyball at the Smithfield site for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games : Birmingham and Rwanda gearing up for the bronze medal match on Sunday 7th August

Sport and Languages : Adam Peaty in the line-up for the 100m men's breaststroke at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Adam Peaty in the line-up for England in the 100m men’s breaststroke

3x3 Basketball at the Smithfield site for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games

Sri Lanka and Australia battle it out in the 3×3 Basketball at the Smithfield site

A sign for the internet. TikTok, this way! Image from FreeImages.com

Have a Break? Have a TikTok!

I’m always looking for five-minute language learning boosters here and there. If you’ve missed the hundred and one other times I’ve been saying it (I blame the excitement), I’ve been a bit busy of late. And it’s at our busiest moments that we need a bit of that quick fix magic.

Cue…. TikTok. Those who still resist, I hear your groans. I must admit that I was a bit late to TikTok myself, a reluctant infinity-scroller. I’m probably a little off its target demographic, too, although the great and mystic algorithm tends to take care of that, and pen you in with like-minded folk.

But once that (granted, a little unsettling) read-your-mind hocus pocus had happened, my For You tab was filled with a stream of mini language lessons. Some decidedly better than others, of course; TikTok’s a very mixed bag. But some content creators are churning out admirably witty and thoughtful learning snippets you won’t find in the textbooks.

Many of these are just clear, plain facts, delivered with welcome simplicity. But the best are done with a dash of humour, and since that gets the likes, there are more and more of them popping up. It’s the self-motivated, individual creators, rather than the big, organisational accounts, that are best at this, and subsequently the most personable and fun to fill your feed with.

Here’s a selection of some of my favourite TikTok lingua-creators!

French

The epitome of short and snappy, @Madame_angol’s videos feature all sorts of vocab and grammar tidbits. On the other hand, if it’s a bit of Québecois you’re after, @french.canadian.nicolas exudes francophone cool from every pore.

German

You can tell the dedicated from the dabbling content creators straight away, and @germanwithniklas is firmly in the former camp. He has loads of fun content, and post reassuringly regularly. Similarly, for a dash of German everyday life and language, @liamcarps is worth a gander.

Spanish

A language teacher that just gets 30-second humour, @patry.ruiz stands head and shoulders above most of the Spanish content creators on TikTok. Another favourite, covering loads of mainstream classroom topics, is @learnspanishathome. Solid, but plenty of laughs too!

Best of the Rest

I’d be here all day if I could cover everything in a short post like this. But other favourites include @caldamac, who features a mix of Gaelic and wholesome outdoorsy content. Then there’s @seamboyseam, who could put together a whole comedy show with his material on the Irish language. Seriously worth a look even if you have a passing interest in the language.

TikTok Back Control

Of course, the quick fix element is a moot point if you don’t control the beast. Pruning and honing your social media is a vital skill to avoid scrollsome insanity. But if you hold the reins, and carefully fashion the TikTok behemoth to your own needs, it can really help bridge those busy weeks.

What are your go-to micro-lesson accounts? Let us know in the comments!

Incidentally, feel free to follow @richardwestsoley! I’m no master TikTokker myself, but it would be lovely to spot some of you there.

Sheet music with lyrics in Polish. Image from freeimages.com

Singalong-a-Language : Lyrics Sites for Learners

Music from other countries was a big early draw to foreign languages for me. The lyrics seemed magical, if only I could memorise and sing along to them.

As a wee young thing, I would sit rewinding and replaying CDs, tapes and videos (largely Eurovision, as that was the best multilingual source in those pre-web days) trying to transcribe what I heard. If I really liked a song, I’d get hold of a dictionary in its language, and try to match those rough transcriptions with a translation.

It was a labour of love, and often a labour in vain – like trying to climb Mount Everest before I could walk.

But those early games with lyrics prepared me more than I realised for all the language learning I went on to do. I not only learnt vocabulary and grammar, but accent, intonation, differing phonologies, relationships between languages, differences between language groups, other writing systems… The list goes on.

One-Click Lyrics

These days, of course, it’s a whole lot easier to get hold of lyrics to foreign language songs you love. Not that transcription isn’t still a great exercise for all the reasons above. But for when you just want to sing along, your hymn sheet is just a search away.

The thing about lyrics sites is that they have often not been the best examples of friendly, cutting-edge web design out there. You still find plenty of examples of clunky, basic sites, often peppered with ads to make them financially viable to run. But there are some gems amongst the chaff. Here are some of the best I’ve found for language learning!

Lyrics.com

As you’d expect from the site that bagged that URL, Lyrics.com is a pretty comprehensive lyrics search engine. It boasts a wealth of international lyrics, as you can see by their hefty catalogue of Gigliola Cinquetti’s hits, for example.

Genius.com

Genius.com likewise has an impressive number of non-English language songs included in its banks. I was particularly impressed at the number of Norwegian titles they had, as you can see from their page on norsk star Anita Skorgan. For me, that’s a good barometer of how many ‘mainstream’ language songs they must have, too!

SongLyrics.com

While not quite as slick as its two cousins above, SongLyrics.com is nonetheless a good place to go if you have little luck searching elsewhere. They have a great list of tracks by French singer Alizée, for example; you’ll be warbling along to Moi… Lolita in no time.

Diggiloo Thrush

Last but not least, and it’s one I’ve sung the praises of before, it’s Diggiloo Thrush. Dislaimer: this is all about the vintage Eurovision lyrics. It’s been lovingly maintained for years now, and has original contest lyrics as well as other language versions, translations and transliterations for many non-Latin scripts. Basically a goldmine if you dream of singing along with Edyta Górniak.

For the non-initiated, this is the least transparent site name of all. If you’re wondering, it refers to Sweden’s winning entry of 1984 (Diggi-loo, Diggi-ley) and the Eurovision 1992 mascot and national bird of Sweden, the song thrush.

Singing from a Different Sheet

So there you have it; four sites to go wild with foreign language lyrics. It’s also worth nothing that the Spotify app now includes lyrics that scroll along with many popular songs. I was very chuffed to find they’d given that treatment to a favourite French pop song by a favourite French band recently, Coma Idyllique by Therapie Taxi. Merci, Spotify!

If anything is missing in the mix, though, it’s a resource to browse for lyrics – and new songs – by language. Webmasters, if you’re reading this…

The French flag flying in front of a town hall

Great French Resources for False Beginners

French and I had a pretty good start. It was the first language I learnt at school, and I wasn’t bad at it at all. It was my first taste of language learning proper, and it gave me a taste for it. By the end of school I was taking my school-leaving exams in it, along with German and Spanish. 

Yet it fell by the wayside shortly after. For whatever reason, I just left it behind, only taking German and Spanish onwards to sixth-form college. It wouldn’t be long before I’d say, quite seriously, oh no, I don’t speak French, despite getting an A in that exam.

It wasn’t for lack of opportunities. With France and Belgium on the doorstep, I’ve enjoyed and felt welcomed in francophone countries all of my life. I just got by on what I had, without bothering to make it more serviceable.

My missed chances get even more glaring that that. I’ve had a French boss and colleague for nearly 20 years, which you might think would be a green light for a language lover to go wild. But we’ve always simply used English in the office, and I’ve shied from inflicting my French on him. After all, I thought, who wants to speak with their colleague in a terrible, broken version of their native language? (Fear of mistakes – workplace edition.)

Imperfectly Perfect

I’ve got a reason to brush it up now. I have a couple of trips booked to French-speaking countries later this year. Nothing new, you might ask, we’ve been here before! If you didn’t brush up to visit then, why now?

Well, it’s partly a matter of a more mature attitude towards learning. I’m now less likely to dismiss partial knowledge; I’m less of a perfectionist. Any level of foreign language skill, no matter how scrappy, is absolutely precious. I have some French, so I’d better start looking after it!

There’s a word for this level, of course: the false beginner. That covers anything from a little knowledge, learned long ago, to a handful of holiday phrases learned here and there over the years. So where do you start as a French false beginner? Here are the most helpful ‘brush up your French books’ I’ve been using lately.

50 French Coffee Breaks

Coffee Break French was amongst the very first language podcasts when the genre started to take off. The team behind it have recently come up with a whole series of books in French, German, Italian and Spanish, all of which are perfect for those who want to brush up.

Each one features a set of short, to-the-point chapters revising both basic and intermediate grammar and vocabulary. Activities come in 5-, 10- and 15-minute flavours, making it ideal to leaf through in your spare moments. French reactivation with little time outlay.

French In Three Months

I was a big fan of Hugo’s In Three Months series back in the day. They were very clear and concise, almost doing double time as quick reference books. Nonetheless, they introduce the whole gamut of grammar, and a good deal of vocabulary too.

Now it’s DK who is flying the flag for them with a brand new look and a slightly reduced language selection. But they’re still just as snappy, and ideal for getting back into a language you might feel a bit wobbly on.

Mot à mot

Three books will be very well known to anyone who has taken A-Level French, German or Spanish in the past twenty years or so: Mot à mot, Palabra por palabra and Wort für Wort. They thematic vocabulary guides that cover a bunch of really useful conversation topics. 

But beyond that, they contain plenty of very general, useful structures as well, for expressing agreement, disagreement and other opinion ‘glue’ for speaking. Well worth a revisit.

Collins Easy Learning French Idioms

Who doesn’t like a good idiom? There have been lots of fun collections of these over the years, not least the sadly now out-of-print 101 French Idioms.

But in the absence of that, I’ve found Collins Easy Learning French Idioms a great substitute. It’s easy to dip in and out of, and features plenty of cartoon-style illustrations as aides-memoire. And it’s laid out thematically, so it’s simple to find a saying for a given occasion. Perfect to remettre les pendules à l’heure (set straight) my French.

And the Rest…

Of course, any reading you can do is going to help reinvigorate old knowledge. I’ve went hunting in Foyles last week, and availed myself of an Arsène Lupin pocket detective story, L’aiguille creuse, which I’m working my way through. It helps, of course, that Netflix has a brilliant French series, Lupin, inspired by those stories.

And that’s the dressing on this salad of false beginner’s resources – the fun stuff that you personalise to your own tastes, like films, magazines and podcasts. It’s helping get my old French back on its feet, and I hope you can do the same, too.

Who knows – I might even dare to use some in the office one of these days.

Bonne chance!

A picture of Commonwealth Games branding on Birmingham Town Hall and Council House. Birmingham is hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Following Your Narrative Arc

Sometimes life events just seem to slot into place, like elements of some carefully crafted narrative arc. If you could read the signs, you’d have seen them coming chapters ago.

It was back in 2018 that I wrote excitedly that the languages were coming to town. My home city, Brum, had been selected to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games, and with it, the chance to show some Midlands hospitality to people from all over the world. I must have maintained that buzz: I posted again about it at the start of this year. Of course, it was all about the languages!

I didn’t take much persuading, then, when a friend asked me to audition for a part in the opening ceremony. And what a take-me-out-of-my-comfort-zone treat for the soul that was. I found myself in a situation where I just had to be big, bold, and throw the lot into it. And I came out feeling like I’d gained a barrowload of courage and confidence, regardless of the outcome.

Fast-forward to now, and I’m halfway through rehearsals for the show itself. It’s been an amazing experience so far, with the big day (28th July) yet to come. I’ve made new friends, found my rhythm, got a lot fitter, and discovered my inner strongman. You’ll just have to watch the show to get that reference…

A picture of my feet standing by the letters S7 to mark a spot. Sometimes our narrative arc leads us to unexpected places!

Standing by my mark and my prop!

And to think that I almost brushed off the idea of attending an audition as too much of a long shot, something others did well at, not me. If there’s any lesson here, it’s simply to explore every opportunity that crosses your path. You never know where an open door will lead.

And maybe, just maybe, that smooth narrative arc of yours was up in the stars all along!

Greek microblog content from Instagram (screenshot).

The Way of the Microblog : Kitchen Sink Inspiration and Language Learning

It’s all about the foreign language microblog for me lately. Short, snappy snippets of target language piped directly to your social media streams: what’s not to love?

In fact, I’m practically drowning in them at the moment. That’s thanks to the notorious and mysterious algorithm (TM), of course, which is a fact of life these days; like one thing, and you get a ton more of the same thrown at you, for better or for worse.

Happily, in the case of us language learners, it’s generally for the better. Take my Instagram feed; its AI wisdom has decided to channel reams of Greek pop psych, heartwarming quotes and concise self help my way. It’s twee and a wee bit naff, granted. But every one of those posts is a 30-second language lesson.

This latest bite-sized adventure all started with a single Greek account, gnwmika.gr. It exclusively posts what you might call ‘fridge magnet’ content: folk wisdom and kitchen sink inspiration.

The great lesson imparted here, in true, lofty microblog style, is:

“Beautiful things will make you love life. Difficult ones will teach you to appreciate and respect the beautiful ones.”

I know – deep, eh.

Anyway, I hit follow and thought little else of it… Until things escalated. Next thing, I’m being shepherded to not only more of the same, but anything and everything Greek. Poetry, history, celebs, TV… the lot. It’s become a rabbit hole leading to some well obscure (but fascinating) places. And, crucially:

…my Greek is so much better for it!

Fill Your Little (Microblog) World Right Up

It all plays in marvellously to the fill your world with target language strategy. Since our worlds are ever more digital, one of the easiest ways to do that is to follow the monkeys out of accounts we find fun and engaging. Add one or two, and let the system start popping more and more into your suggested follows.

Now, the only catch is that the algorithm (TM) is smothering me in Greek. I’d love a bit of Gaelic, Icelandic, Norwegian or Polish (and the rest). So, if you’re reading this and have some good microblog recommendations to kick the cycle off again…

…please let me know!

A group of toy gorillas - possibly singing cartoon themes? Image from freeimages.com.

Animated Language Learning with Cartoon Themes

There’s an underexploited, rich seam of fun, bite-sized authentic materials out there. Especially if you find yourself reminiscing wistfully on your childhood television memories. Bring on the cartoon themes – in translation!

Now, I’m not talking about the big, blockbusting Disney feature animations. Those are, of course, a different subtype of this genre (and no less handy for language learning).

Instead, this is about pure nostalgia of the small-time kids’ shows of yesteryear as an engine for language learning. It’s about reliving those half-forgotten, often very modest-budget productions with some of the catchiest tunes composed for TV. Many a bored moment I’ve spent idly browsing YouTube, wondering along the lines of “what did ‘Dogtanian and the Muskahounds’ sound like in Polish?”. And yes, YouTube really does have almost everything in its cartoon themes annals. As obscure as you care you conjure up, it’s probably there.

And go on then… While we’re at it, let’s throw Disney back into the mix. Just not the big cinema headliners, but the cartoon series of decades past with some of the biggest earworms of all.

Ah, the soundtracks to our childhoods.

It’s not just a trip down memory lane, of course. It’s the geekiest (and most satisfying) of language learning party tricks to memorise the lyrics to these wee jingles, ready to reel off and impress friends and family at the slightest cue. And, like all automatic, rote memorisation tasks (like the mass sentence technique), it’s a brilliant exercise for phonetic finessing of pronunciation, accent and prosody. That’s not to mention the extra vocab you’ll pick up along the way.

Cartuneful Lyrics

Remarkably for non-pop songs, some lyrics sites even include entries for these childhood gems, like this entry for Spanish Duck Tales (or Patolandia!). Failing that, some helpful native speakers have occasionally added them in the video comments themselves, as with this upload of Gummi Bears in Greek.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to transcribe them as you hear them first, of course. They just help with some of the more magical vocabulary. No way was I going to get that “περιπέτεια συγκλονιστική” meant “astounding adventure” without help!

Remember, too, that these shows touched the hearts of so many around the world. As such, they make a lovely way to make a native speaker smile. And probably think you quite odd, too, but there’s no shame in that!

Which cartoon theme tunes are you particularly fond of? And do they exist in your target languages? Let us know in the comments!

Headphones - great for listening to a podcast or ten!

Honest Podcast Pruning

Foreign language podcast episodes are fantastic language learning tools. But if you’re anything like me, you end up following far too many programmes to manage.

It’s great, of course, to have lots of choice. But what’s not so great is to get resource overwhelm when you have too many to count. Where to start?

It became pretty much do or die with my podcast list lately. I felt bogged down when I checked my podcast app. It seemed like there were just too many to catch up on. The crux of it: I just wasn’t listening to them any more.

Some pruning was in order.

Podcast Pruning

There’s a little self-honesty strategy you can try to prune your podcasts. Most podcast programmes have a ‘latest podcast’ list, which lists all episodes in order of recency. In iOS it looks like this:

A screenshot of podcasts listed by decency in iOS

The latest podcasts view on iOS

Now, go to play them from the top. No cheating. For each one, if your reaction is a reluctant, groaning must I? or can I just skip this one?, then your heart is probably not really in it. Of course, this isn’t a hard-and-fast acid test. There may be times when we are just not in the mood. But in my experience, that reeeeeally? wince is generally a sign that your interest isn’t fully committed.

So if our hearts aren’t really in it, what are these podcasts doing on our lists in the first place?

Well, it comes down to what we think we should be doing and what we want to be doing. There’s quite normative – even moralistic – sense of what ‘worthwhile’ language learning content is. That’s skewed by lots of outside influences that discount our personal interests. And, with learning, an invested, personal interest is key. There’s little point bashing your head against a brick wall with unmotivating content. Always ask will this content spark my interest beyond language learning?

So, the next time you find yourself avoiding your podcast app, or staring, uninspired, at a list of countless foreign language podcasts you have no desire to plough through, consider an honest podcast pruning!

The Black Country flag. Black Country English has undergone the processes of language change just as any other variety has.

Language Change – Up Close and Personal

The constant churn of language change is an ever-present backdrop for every speaker and learner of a language. Sounds change, words come and go, phraseology shifts. What was common parlance a century ago can be a complete archaism today.

But the classic textbook examples – napron, methinks, thou art and such like – can often seem  a bit dry, distant and theoretical on the page. It’s rarely that we see it up close and personal, not just in our first languages, but in our particular varieties of them. We’re used to thinking of traditional dialects as timeless, apart from Standard English; somehow they were always just so.

It made a nice change, then, to notice real-time language change in my own family vernacular of late. I’ve been conducting a piece of research into Black Country dialect, which has turned up all sorts of fascinating texts. And some of the forms in there had me boggling at how our local speech has altered in the last 150 years or so.

Vocabulary items, as you’d expect, drop in and out regularly over the course time. That doesn’t stop them being surprising when they pop up, though. My searches turned up things I’ve never heard a West Midlander say in my life. But there they are, in black and white, as examples of typical Black Country speech in newspaper articles both pillorying and honouring the dialect over time.

Welly Enough

My first ooh – I’ve never come across that before!  is the word welly for nearly. Take this lovely example from the story “How Leyvi Crafts Got Rid O’ The Mice“, which appeared in an edition of the popular “Tom Brown’s Black Country annual” in 1889. The narrator, bemoaning the stench from a bottle of poison, exclaims:

“The smell on it’s welly enough to kill a christian, let aloon a mouse!”

And then there’s the sign-off from a humorous letter to the editor in dialect, from the 1890s. After speaking his piece, the writer rounds off:

“well mr Editer i’n sed welly all as i wanted”

So what became of the welly? I’ve asked our resident Black Country expert (aka John, my stepdad), and he hasn’t a clue either.

Bear in mind that sometimes the word remains, but its form is different. Who knew, for example, that Black Country had an Old English -en plural for fleas, just like oxen? As one commentator in 1892 writes:

“…the Black Country mother may be heard to declare that ‘her babby has been peffled all o’er wi’ fleen.'”

I know. Not a nice image.

Better Nor That…

And then there are constructions that have changed a fair bit, too. I grew up around some very broad and proud speakers of Black Country English, who nonetheless formed comparisons as in Standard English: “better than that“, for example. Switch that out for nor, and you end up with the kind of phrase you’d more likely hear in the early 20th Century:

“…yow oughten to ha’ known better nor that…”

One of the most unusual lost phrases I’ve come across yet is the use of without as unless. It was nestling in a local yarn published in 1906:

“I dow know, without yow goo to Dr. Brown’s…”

Again, it’s lost on my family when I press them (no doubt ever nearing their limits of patience) for clarification. A hundred years can do a lot to a language.

How has your local speech changed in the last century or so? Let us know in the comments!