Close-up of daydreaming eye, full of wistfulness. Image from FreeImages.com

The Power of Wistfulness : Misty-Eyed Language Learning

Sometimes, a distant goal can exert a greater pull than an immediate one. It’s all down to the mysterious power of wistfulness.

I’ve been learning Gaelic for a few years now. It’s always been at a fairly steady, casual pace, never rushed or urgent. That’s probably because it’s always felt like a sociable endeavour rather than an academic one; classes and chat clubs are a chance to catch up with friends as much as learn a language.

It’s when I’m away from that environment that the nature of that changes dramatically. And it’s particularly strong when I’m very far away.

I clocked it this week, at the tail-end of the post-August grind-back-into-gear. For many of us, there’s been a big break from classes over summer, and Gaelic was no exception out of term-time. Chat groups have been quiet too, what with folk off on their hols and such like. That’s a whole month and beyond without any structured language learning.

The result? I’ve started kicking off each day with “Alexa, play BBC Radio nan Gàidheal“. I’ve plunged into some proper reading at last, giving a new translation of Animal Farm a go (even though it’s a wee bit tough for my level). BBC Alba is my current go-to on iPlayer of an evening. And I’ve been dipping into an Old Irish primer to fill in the historical gaps. Distance has been like a lightning rod to my motivation!

The Power of Wistfulness

What’s happened? Well, I’d call it the power of wistfulness. When something treasured or important becomes distant, people tend to grow wistful and nostalgic for it. And that, in turn, multiplies the joy that comes from immersing yourself in it, from revelling in it, even, as a source of comfort. It explains in part why a (formal) learning break can sometimes work wonders.

It’s similar to the effect you get after coming back from a trip to your target language country. You just know you’ll get a mini boost to your learning for a good few weeks after your return. It’s because absence really can make the heart grow fonder, as you crave anything that restores that warm connection. There’s almost an irony there, of course; after returning from a trip, I’ll sometimes study the language more than in the lead-up to it!

So, here I am, listening to solemn choral music on Gaelic radio, feeling all sorts of longing for roves around the Scottish Highlands. Twee, I know, and I’m sure I’ll return to lazy ways when the calendar ramps up again. But who’s complaining when it’s driving some progress? I’ve probably immersed myself more in past couple of weeks than I have since I started Gaelic. And that morning radio in the target language is fast becoming a healthy language-learning habit I hope to continue.

The power of wistfulness can do funny things.

 

Books, glorious books. And you can pick most of them up for a bargain price at Wob, too.

Wob, Two, Three, It’s Second-Hand Books for Me

Loads of language books? Check. Great prices and free postage? Check. Social conscience? Check. All reasons why Wob (formerly World of Books) is my latest second-hand bookseller of choice.

As you might know, I’ve become a bit of a second-hand book fiend of late. I’m positively gobbling them up. It’s a combination of the great value and the nostalgia for me. For a couple of pounds, I can get great resources that take me right back to those analogue days when I first got hooked on languages. And sometimes, the oldies really are the goodies!

Wob You Lookin’ At?

The thing is, when you’re looking through pages and pages of second-hand book listings with stock photos, it’s hard to gauge their quality. To help with this, most market sites, like eBay, AbeBooks and Amazon Marketplace, use a set of fairly standard quality descriptors: like new, very good, good, acceptable / well-read and such like. As you can’t look at the book before you buy it, you’re relying on the honesty of the seller here.

This is the main reason I like Wob so much. Out of all the sellers I’ve bought from, their descriptions have tended to be the most honest and reliable of all. Unsurprisingly, great quality control is a point they drive home in their marketing, and it certainly seems to differentiate them from other sellers. As a result, it’s a pleasure to wait for books in the post that won’t require too much aggressive DIY book restoration!

Daylight Wobbery? Far From It!

It goes without saying that price is always a big plus point when buying second-hand. Like most used book outlets these days, Wob appears to use dynamic pricing software to set those price tags. This gauges all sorts of things, like supply, demand, click interest and so on, adjusting prices accordingly in real time. For that reason, if you have your eye on a book, it’s a good idea to favourite it, then check back regularly to see if you can grab it at a more bargainous price.

There’s another trick to leap on a best price, too. Wob, like many other eCommerce sites, also sells via other channels, notably eBay and AbeBooks. It’s always worth looking up the same book on those alternative storefronts before buying, as the prices can be quite different. Whether that’s due to completely different dynamic pricing algorithms or whatever, I’m not sure. But it does mean that site-hopping for a bargain pays dividends.

A wee, timely tip: they do quite a nice 5% off two books offer on their eBay store at the moment.

We Only Have Wob Planet

Last, but certainly not least, Wob also makes environmental concerns a central thrust of its business ethos. The company is a certified member of the B Corp movement, a benchmark for sustainability in commerce. Arguably all second-hand booksellers are environmentally responsible in similar ways, at least in terms of encouraging reuse, and minimising over-consumption and waste, but it’s nice to see it celebrated!

So there you have it. So many reasons to say three cheers for Wob. And so many excuses to buy lots more books (as if I needed them).

 

A rose in black and white, in memory of Queen Elizabeth II. Image from freeimages.com

Queen Elizabeth II and the Power of Language

The UK entered a period of national mourning this week, after the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II. As the world reflects on her qualities, it’s worth noting one very close to our own hearts: she understood the bridge-building power of language.

It’s a little-celebrated fact that the Queen was a talented linguist herself, fluent in French. Her language abilities are a side the British public heard precious little of; perhaps the spectacle of a monarch speaking anything other than Queen’s English never chimed well with the patriotic symbolism the figurehead is supposed to espouse.

But perhaps this kind of patriotism is one that travels better than home-bound nationalism. It’s the patriotism of faithfully representing your own community, while giving respect to others. Queen Elizabeth II employed this to great effect while supporting British diplomacy abroad.

In fact, she understood something even more fundamental about the power of language. She understood that it only takes a few words to build a bridge. Fluency isn’t essential.

One particular story that came to light this week spotlights that beautifully. In 2011, the Queen made an unprecedented state visit to Ireland, the first since the Republic gained its hard-fought independence. Surprising officials who had advised against it, she opened her speech to gathered dignitaries with an address as Gaeilge:

A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde
(to the president and friends)

Just five words, but the significance was huge. Former President Mary McAleese, at her side, summed it up with a simple wow.

Languages are powerful, and that power can be used for good.

A few words can’t erase history. But they can begin to clear a path to the future. To understand this is the hallmark of a true diplomat.

Celtic designs on a stone sphere, evoking Old Irish culture. Image from FreeImages.com

Sengoidelc : Old Irish (and More Besides)

I stumbled across a rather special book this week. It’s David Stifter’s very thorough introduction to Old Irish, Sengoidelc, pleasingly still in print, and approaching its 20th birthday.

I sought it out first and foremost as a language-learning gap-filling exercise. I’ve spent some time with Scottish Gaelic, and a bit (well, a lot) less with Irish. Exploring Old Irish seemed like a good way to get to know their common history, especially given how helpful etymological pathfinding can be with multiple language projects. I’ve also come across satisfying snippets of Old Irish writing, like the brilliantly feline Pangur Bán, and hoped it might open the door to similar treats.

Old Irish – and the Rest

What I didn’t expect from an Old Irish primer was the wealth of detail about Proto-Indo-European. It makes sense, of course; for linguists studying PIE, Old Irish is an important source of evidence from a relatively less well-known ancient descendant – at least compared to, say, Greek and Latin. But it’s positively packed with background info on PIE parts of speech, and their development into the Celtic branch. All in all, it’s a fantastically erudite book written in a disarmingly friendly tone, helped along by some very cute cartoons of sheep.

The author even provides plenty of comparative examples in German. That’s perhaps unsurprising, given his connection to the University of Vienna. But the additional language gives a further handle on potentially difficult concepts for those who know a little. It’s the ultimate in triangulation (and you know I love that).

If your language interests intersect in the same way, Sengoidelc is heartily recommended. I’m just annoyed I didn’t find it sooner!

Map pins - great for pinpointing a location, just like prepositions of place! Image from freeimages.com

Location Location : Prepositions of Place Between Languages

Prepositions can be tricky, not least those relating to location. They don’t always align between languages, so they are a common source of language learning errors. But getting them right like a master is all down to how we think about space and place in the world.

One of the biggest differences between languages relates to being within an enclosed area or on a flat, open space. It might sound like a very specific category distinction for brains to carve out, especially as we give it no thought in our native languages. But brains do carve physical space up like this, and exactly what counts as each can differ from language to language.

Approximate Location…

Take the word station, for example. In English, it’s neither here nor there. You tend to be at the station, at being as fairly vague preposition attaching some entity generally to a location. Likewise, in French, you’re à la gare, and in German, you’ll be am Bahnhof, each language using its personal flavour of at. However, in Polish, you’ll literally be on (top of) the stationna dworcu. That’s because, for Polish speakers, the station is a large, flat, open space. Whatever historical and cultural reasons led to that distinction – different styles of station buildings or layout or whatever – might now be lost, but they’re felt still in those prepositions.

Sometimes, the deciding factor is which part of the location the speaker has in mind. In English, we similarly say at university, specifying very generally with at again. German and French follow once more with an der Uni(versität) and à l’unversité. But in Polish, you’re na uniwersytecie, literally on the university. In Polish, it’s the quad-like nature of the lawned university courtyard that is the defining concept; in English, French, and German, it’s perhaps more about the buildings, or even just that general dot on the city map.

Diverging Laylines

So far, it seems like English, French and German form a bit of a group here, behaving in the same way. But it’s certainly not always like that. German and Polish pair up on the opposite side of English when it comes to parking your car. In English, you’re usually in or at the car park. I’d say in personally; it always seems like an enclosed, fenced or walled in area for me, whether it’s indoors or outdoors. French prefers at, giving us au parking. Not so in German, where you’re auf dem Parkplatz, and in Polish, which plumps for na parkingu – literally on (top of) the car park.

And it’s not always physical places that see this variation, either. Think of a party: in English, you’ll be at one, as in French, which places you à une fête. But in German, you’ll be auf einer Party, and in Polish, na imprezie, conceiving the party as a flat area of space. Where, presumably, there is just as much fun being had as in the English and French counterparts.

And for the Less Fussy…

There are, of course, languages which make the whole business of location much easier. Spanish, for example, allows the little word en (in) to do a lot of heavy lifting. En la estación, en la universidad, en la fiesta. How’s that for a helping hand? And Greek also tends to use σε (se, in) as a general catch-all for in, at, on, you name it. At the train station? Στο σταθμό (sto stathmó). At the university? Στο πανεπιστήμιο (sto panepistímio). At the party? Στο πάρτι (sto párti). Of course, you can finesse location with more detailed words like πάνω (pano – on top), κάτω (kato – below), μέσα (mesa – inside) and so on, but you won’t necessarily be breaking any rules if you don’t.

And given the trickery involved in learning prepositions in some other languages, that’s something I’m often very grateful for!

Learning Places : Banff and Macduff Bay

Learning Places

Do you ever find yourself learning the same things in the same places? Not intentionally, but somehow drifting into the same languages, the same subjects, according to where you are?

I’ve been on a well overdue parental visit on the north-east coast again this week after a hectic few months. And I’ve noticed that something of a pattern has emerged. Despite having a gloriously diverse language library to pick and choose from, and well-made general dabbling intentions, I always go for a Gaelic book while I’m staying here.

Ambient Inspiration

Maybe it’s seeing the mountains of East Sutherland far across the water, near which Nancy Dorian researched the sadly moribund local dialects of Gaelic, that prompts me. Or perhaps it’s just that quintessentially Scottish coastal mix of sea, sky and moorland that gets me in the mood. Whatever it is, I’m more likely to settle down with Gaelic here than in any of my other favourite reading places.

Places for learning: Banff and Macduff Bay

Banff and Macduff Bay, across from which the hills of Sutherland can just be made out

There’s a potential downside to that, according to some educational psychologists. Research into context-dependent memory suggests that material learnt exclusively in one environment may be harder to recall in others.

But the flip-side of that is the use of wider memories as triggers for learnt material. In my case, think of home, remember your Gaelic.

The choice of book says a lot, too. As if to match the homely nostalgia, on each trip home I’ve been working my way further into Roderick Mackinnon’s original Teach Yourself Gaelic, 1971 (1992 reissue). A treasure of an old language book, if ever there was one.

Learning places : A copy of Teach Yourself Gaelic in front of a seaside view

An unashamedly posed shot of Teach Yourself Gaelic

 

What languages, books and places go together for you? Do you have a preferred nook or corner of the world to settle down to some study in? Let us know!

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…