You can teach an old dog new tricks! Image from freeimages.com

Old Dog, New Tricks

Have you ever learnt a new trick in your target language, and promptly gone to town with it, trying to crowbar it into every conversation?

It’s the excitable puppy incarnation of the old use it or lose it adage. You might call it use it… and use it… and use it. The trait isn’t uncommon amongst students of languages – or otherwise –  when there’s a particularly passionate connection to the subject.

For instance, I know one wee chap who will excitedly regurgitate new dinosaur facts ad infinitum to his very patient parents. My own not-so-little brother will hold me hostage to myriad beekeeping facts (his latest fad) when I visit of late. And I, myself, will bore my own friends rigid with newfound oddities of grammar and etymology. (No, the behaviour doesn’t wane with age!)

It really is one of the joys of learning to (over)share your new skills.

How’s Tricks?

It’s in my mind recently thanks to a bit of Gaelic new tricks magic I’ve learnt. Some months ago, I came across a really interesting quirk of Gaelic word order that bears a striking resemblance to German syntax. Namely, verb phrases place their head to the right of the noun phrase in certain conditions:

Gaelic: ‘S urrainn dhomh am biadh a chòcaireachd. (is ability to-me the food to cook)
German: Ich kann das Essen kochen. (I can the food cook)
English: I can cook the food.

We’d not covered it in class at that point, so I filed it away mentally as an interesting fact to revisit later.

I didn’t have to wait long. One of this term’s big ideas for our group was that very phenomenon. We’ve spent lesson after lesson having fun with it (in fact, some of the most fun lessons we’ve had, making up humorous sentences based on whacky scenarios!).

The thing is, I’m now using inversion everywhere – not just in class, but in casual chat too. I’m also spotting it everywhere in my reading too, as if a spotlight has been shone on it. It’s as if inversion has taken possession of the new tricks cortex in my brain, neurons glowing at the slightest excitation.

It reminds me of that explosion of expressivity when you first learn to form the past tense in a language. Suddenly you want to use it everywhere to talk about what you did, what you’ve been doing, what you used to do… And it’s one of the greatest signs that you really love the subject, or language, you’ve chosen to dedicate your time to.

Do you recognise new tricks syndrome in your own language learning? What new linguistic toys are you currently playing with? Let us know in the comments!

Twitter - has that bird flown? Image of a peafowl from FreeImages.com.

Twitter for Language Learners : Has That Bird Flown?

There’s been a true Twitter storm of late – only the object of controversy is Twitter itself. Will it survive? Will it even be a place we want to stay if it does? Whether the doomsayers are right or not, it’s given plenty of us the jitters, leading to some (perhaps premature) tearful goodbyes on the platform this week.

It’s no surprise that it engenders such strong feelings amongst us. Language lovers and polyglots have found a friendly refuge and comfy home in the #langtwt nest. It’s such a part of the glue of our community, that it’s hard to imagine polyglot life without it. But hiding there all along, in plain sight, have been some pretty good alternative community tools, if we need them.

So where else might we get all cosy and snug?

MASTODON

Let’s start with perhaps the Twitteriest alternative of all, the decentralised microblogging network Mastodon. A quick glance through my own follows suggests that this is where most are setting up their contingency tents.

Mastodon is possibly the most seamless to migrate to for former Twitter users. The toot-posting interface is strikingly familiar, and post-signalling is supported by hashtags, just as the bluebird likes it. Ironically, #langtwt has some traction on Mastodon already, although it’s only a matter of time before the steadily growing community spawns some more appropriate tags.

What bamboozles many with Mastodon is the idea of servers. These are basically interconnected nodes where your account ‘lives’, giving you the second part of your address (mine, for instance, is @richwestsoley@mastodon.scot). There’s a brilliant explainer of that at this link.

The independence of these nodes is a big upside for those decrying the autocratic turn of Twitter. There is no single Mastodon authority, all servers being equal. That makes the threat of future takeovers unlikely, if this is your greatest concern.

INSTAGRAM

Instagram polyglots will be sore from all the eye-rolling at this one; the photo-sharing platform already has a long tradition of learner posters, including many of the polyglot circuit celebs like Richard Simcott.

The universality of hashtag conventions makes this another no-brainer switch if you’re on the digital move from Twitter. All the usual suspects like #LanguageLearning are on there. The only downside is the need for every post to be attached to a picture upload, although for the shy, isn’t that just another great excuse to post lots of course book and notepad snaps?

REDDIT

Reddit is what you might call your old-fashioned internet forum, rebooted. We’re getting further from Twitter-style microblog territory here, but anyone who remembers the internet from the turn of the millennium will probably feel a warm and fuzzy nostalgia amongst the threads on offer.

Reddit already has large groups like r/polyglot, but the forum style can make these behemoths a little chaotic (as with the similar Facebook group). It’s in smaller, more specialist language groups that I find a better level of interaction and community, such as r/gaidhlig for all things Gaelic, and the system of upvotes and downvotes is genuinely effective at helping higher-quality posts bubble up to the top.

DISCORD, TELEGRAM and WHATSAPP

I’ve lumped these three together as they share a USP: the ease of creating small, invite-only communities. The exclusivity is a huge bonus in creating and maintaining the group as a safe space for like-minded learners. The rub is that closed groups are by their nature not public-facing, and rely on you to do the work to gather friends and colleagues to them.

Telegram and WhatsApp need little introduction, being the phone messaging apps many of us already use daily. But I’ve had some lovely experiences in closed groups run on these platforms, including a lively and fun Telegram group run by my Polish tutor, and a Gaelic chat group that occasionally also meets at the pub.

Discord, on the other hand, is quite a different beast, having emerged as a means for the online gaming community to socialise. As such, there’s a distinct techie look and feel to it, which appeals a lot to my geekish side; its high-contrast colours remind me of computer days of yore. I’ve found myself live-commenting Eurovision in one set up by a Twitter friend, and can testify to how gemütlich it can feel!

Branching Out

I’m bound to have missed some off this list, whether they’re biggies or nascent tools in the pipeline. TikTok, of course, has to get an honorary mention for its burgeoning community of language learners and teachers. Meetup too deserves checking out, especially since it exists to connect those online community tools with offline socialising. 

It’s worth rounding off here by reaffirming that the Twitter bird has not yet flown. #langtwt is still alive and well. And enough people are hanging around to keep the community buzzing and vibrant. Saying that, there’s no harm in branching out. After all, birds can call many trees their home.

Whether you up sticks or stay put, happy learning!

Magic of the Mundane : Language Learning from the Inbox Clutter

We language learning enthusiasts can turn the most mundane, dull items into shiny, valuable objects of curiosity and enrichment – much like cats and dogs frequently manage. It’s a very special gift we have.

I’m not saying we can play for hours on end with a cardboard box or some wrapping paper. I’m talking about the mundanity of digital life, particularly those parts of it which normally leave us a little fuming.

Take electronic newsletters. Yes, those all-too-frequent, clog-up-your-inbox ad mail-shots from companies, websites and other organisations you (usually) provided with your email address in weaker moments. If your inbox resembles mine in any way, you probably have more of this automated, targeted (but totally solicited) junk than emails from actual human beings.

Predictably, when I get these in English, my reaction usually ranges from blasé curiosity and a quick skim through, to mild annoyance and immediate deletion.

But add a foreign language to the mix, and they’re magically transformed. They’re now language learning resources ™️! <cue amazed oohs and aahs>

From the Mundane to the Sublime

It’s a magic trick that can add appeal to the most prosaic of inbox items. This week, I found myself transfixed by an email ad for branded pots and pans from my favourite Greek TV chef, Akis. Do I have any interest in cooking? That’s debatable. But is it a whole lot of geekish fun learning words for specialist kitchen utensils in Greek? You bet.

From the mundane to the sublime : an image promoting Greek chef Akis Petretzikis’ range of pots and pans.
From the mundane to the sublime : an image promoting Greek chef Akis Petretzikis’ range of pots and pans.

If you’re looking to find the value in the e-marketing chaff, it’s easy enough to seek out these kind of target language bulletins nowadays. Call up the websites of your favourite brands or personalities, add your details, and click submit. Instant brand servitude with a dash of language learning thrown in. A bit of pop culture surfing doesn’t hurt, either.

But just to avoid over-gorging on that language learning feast and passing out from junkbox marketing fatigue, consider using email rules to siphon them off to a special folder (or even a dedicated email just for target language newsletter clutter). It’s an enthusiasm-saver if you end up signing up for a couple too many. And we’ve all had too much at the buffet before, after all.

A crowd of people, a trigger for social anxiety. Image by freeimages.com

Managing Social Anxiety (and Other Language Learning Tips)

I write this in the middle of a minor battle on a packed train. A battle, that is, between me and my anxiety.

Like many people – no doubt pounded into a cowering stance by the chaotic onslaught of daily life – I so deal with heightened social anxiety on a fairly regular basis, with the panic monster rearing its head in some particular trigger situations.

For me, train travel is the perfect storm – which is ironic, given how much of it I do. It’s a fear of a lack of control in those scenarios where you end up herded like cattle in an every-person-for-themselves throng when train services are cancelled, delayed or otherwise packed like sardines, cheek to cheek with sometimes very unsympathetic humans. The fact that it happens with a depressingly increasing frequency in the UK lately doesn’t help one bit.

But, I have a choice. Find ways to manage it, or stop travelling. And I certainly don’t want the latter.

So manage it, I do. The thing is, the ways I cope with my social anxiety are also pretty nifty, general tools for tackling other things people get anxious about – including speaking a foreign language. Did I mention that I was a shy linguist too?

Situational Engineering

The first thing to recognise is that you do have power – the power of choice.

When planning any kind of advance into the social world, we often have options. With trains, for example, I can choose services that begin at my point of departure (rather than arriving from elsewhere first, already stuffed with people). By choosing those, I’m in a sense engineering the situation to minimise the most anxiety-inducing elements of it.

Doing so requires a bit of introspection first, probings the whats and whys of why we get anxious. What are you worried about? Is that actually masking a deeper, more general fear? And what elements of the situation can you tweak to lessen your exposure to this fear? When you hit on that, you’ve found a way to win back some control and confidence.

Incentivise

That said, a whole solution shouldn’t simply be all about avoidance. Facing our fears is the basis of exposure therapy, for example, and making them regular encounters can go some way to robbing them of their power. But the simple fact is that tackling scary or challenging situations is a chore at best, and terrifying at worst. One way to sweeten this burden? Reward yourself for it.

In the case of my train travel anxiety, I started a little phone note with the title Be Brave to Save. In it, I write down every instance where I gritted my teeth and resisted the urge to back down, either by abandoning a trip, buying a new ticket, or paying for an upgrade to make things less socially uncomfortable for myself. Each time, I record how much money my little act of self-bravery saved me. At the end of the month, you know exactly what I’m spending that on.

Try setting yourself bravery goals like this in your language travails. Think ‘inverse swear jar‘, and devise some system to reward the behaviour you want to encourage in yourself. Plucked up the courage to do a face-to-face iTalki lesson? Pop a pound in a pot. Steeled yourself to turn up to a language cafe event at your local pub? Give yourself a star, and tot them up at the end to decide your prize.

Facing your fears is hard; reward yourself for it, you hero.

Fellow humans, not adversaries

Feeling anxious very much locks you inside your own head. It’s an overwhelming sensation that takes over your actions and reactions. At a point, it starts to reinforce itself, to the exclusion of everything reassuring you could be noticing outside of yourself.

In these moments, I find it helpful to refocus to what is outside. I try to remember that the objects of my anxiety – other humans – are mostly not that different from me. In fact, they might even be feeling the same way I am, but, also like me, completely expert at hiding it. To break that wall, I dare myself to build a bridge, however small. I make eye contact. I smile wearily at other passengers squeezed into the same tiny spaces. And (cringe) I’ll make corny, oft-repeated traveller remarks about sardines. It almost always re-humanises the situation, and signals – to you and others – that you’re all in together, and not rival players.

Know you’re not alone. Some situations, like travel chaos, or public interaction and performance, are almost universal triggers for a heightened emotional state. There are a hundred similar battles taking place simultaneously in the heads of others around you, on all sorts of scales.

Phone a Friend

Of course, sometimes all you need is another human who does know what’s going on inside your head. Never underestimate the benefit of an understanding hand to hold, be it a friend, a fellow learner, or a mentor.

For instance, it really helps me when I have a friend to meet for a coffee before a train – and, if I’m really lucky, to walk me to the platform and wave me off. There’s just something disarming about having a friendly face next to you when you face a thorny situation. If there’s something fazing you about using your foreign languages in public, is there someone who could be there to cheerlead when you go for it?

Strengthening Your Armour

Despite all of the tips and tricks, there’s zero shame in enlisting more formal help when things get overwhelming. Fortunately, there are plenty of easy-to-access, professionally advocated techniques for minimising anxiety, either as quick support strategies or longer-term interventions. For a therapeutic tradition with a very solid body of evidence behind it, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is hard to beat.

For the more experimental, tapping is an alternative practice that aims to tackle anxious thought patterns. Tapping is, in essence, a kind of self-affirming, almost hypnotic system of repetitive phrasing paired with physical tapping of various points of the upper body. It has raised eyebrows; studies tend to ascribe its efficacy not to any physiological principle, but rather to more psychosomatic pathways. But it has been used in clinical settings to treat depression, and even piloted in some secondary schools as a mental health strategy. You can work with a practitioner, but equally try it all by yourself, with plenty of YouTube videos like this one available for the curious.

Anxiety? I Don’t Know Her

And that’s me just pulling into my station, after a potentially nerve-wrecking two-and-a-half-hours that was, actually, not that bad at all. Writing a blog post with ear buds blasting cheese was certainly a handy attention-absorber – add pleasant distractions to that list of anxiety busters!

What coping strategies do you have in place for your anxious moments? Please let us know your tips in the comments!

Icelandic Noun Master - an app with an appreciative audience.

Do It For An Audience

It’s nice to be appreciated. And sometimes, an appreciative audience can be just the boost you need to get back into gear.

I received some lovely feedback this week about an app I’d almost completely forgotten about. It all related to a very active Icelandic phase I was going through a couple of years back. At the time, I was enjoying a particularly fierce battle with noun declensions, but suffering from a dearth of resources to help (fellow Icelandic learners will relate).

There’s a good piece of advice in this situation. If there’s no help forthcoming, help yourself.

To get a handle on those noun tables, I put together a quick ‘n’ simple app to drill those declensions. I used Java and Android Studio (it’s my job, after all), but there was no prerequisite level of tech – it’s something that could just as easily take life in a site like Quizlet or Educandy.

The idea was basic: a set of multiple choice activities to drill Icelandic noun endings, separately by gender, or altogether. It just needed a bit of time to put together questions and prompts from the grammar guides I had available to me. And the result? A really effective five-minutes-a-day app for getting those endings into memory.

The added benefit of putting it together as a mobile app was that it was ready-bundled to share on to others. I released it as Icelandic Noun Master on Google Play as a free app, and watched the downloads slowly clock up. It’s still there, quietly helping anyone who needs it.

Learning by Making

DIY resource production – for yourself and for others – is a language learning strategy that can yield surprisingly positive results. For a start, resource creation gets you thinking deeply about your learning material, and how to transform it into a clearer, easily testable format. To make questions from it, you have to step away, look at it from a different angle, turn it inside out, think about it in ways that perhaps weren’t obvious on first glance. It’s like turning a jigsaw puzzle upside-down for a fresh perspective, and suddenly spotting where a piece goes. That see it in a different way benefit, incidentally, is why teaching to learn is likewise such a good strategy.

But there’s another intended side-effect, an almost hypnotically effective one. In the creation of resources, you can drift into an almost automaton-style collating of material, sourcing and listing sample sentences, questions or tabular data. It’s a kind of flow state that encourages foreign language material to bed itself in almost by a process of osmosis. Even if it doesn’t quite become active knowledge in one fell swoop, it lays the ground for it to become so later.

Keep ’em Coming

So, in these ways (and probably many more), an appreciative audience can be a useful tool for a language learner. And of course, there’s also that feeling that what you’re doing has impact and usefulness – and that can work wonders for your motivation. In any case, it’s got me thinking that there’s a bit of life left in the trusty old Icelandic Noun Master yet. I’ll be returning to it now, to spruce it up, and revise my own Icelandic. And maybe I’ll even add an iOS version to the mix, too.

Have to keep that audience happy!

An egg frying in a non-stick frying pan (image by freeimages.com). How do you ensure your vocabulary doesn't stick together?

Non-Stick Vocabulary : Separating Similar Words

We’ve all been there in the early stages of language learning. Somehow, certain words just seem to blend into each other. Does X mean Y or Z? I keep saying X for Y! And why do all those little words look so similar? You want your vocabulary to stick in your mind, not the individual items to stick together

These recall problems are pretty normal, particularly when you throw in the social pressure of speaking with others, which can even mess with your native language. With a foreign language, the problem is compounded by differences in phonemic salience – that is., which sounds count as important markers to distinguish one word from another. Something really subtle in your native language, like the difference between a hard stop and a palatalised counterpart, can completely change a meaning. Take the pair of words adabu (good manners) and ajabu (wonder, amazement) in Swahili. When I started Swahili classes, I could not separate them in my head for the life of me. It’s likely that my brain just found it tricky to meaningfully separate the sounds represented by d and j, as /d/ often morphs into /dj/ in my native dialect (try saying induce or and you).

Other times, words might get sticky because they share similar structures that co-trigger, like rhyming sequences. That would explain why I also found it tricky to separate the word asali (honey) from the previous two. Latching onto that aXa pattern, it somehow ended up occupying a very similar memory space to adabu and ajabu. And of course, it probably didn’t help that you spell all three with just five letters! It’s the cost-economising (read: lazy) part of the brain spotting patterns and making heuristic shortcuts – even when these are very unhelpful. Tsk. (Incidentally, the brilliant Daniel Kahneman writes about dodgy heuristics in Thinking, Fast and Slow, which is well worth a read if this piques your interest!)

Revisiting Vocabulary

Interestingly, it’s an effect that isn’t confined to brand new languages. It can even happen with old languages we’re dredging up from the past, or low-level maintaining.

Hebrew is one of those for me. It’s not quite a maintenance language; in fact, I can barely even count it as a fully-fledged language of mine. I barely reached A1 in the modern, spoken language, so it doesn’t take a lot of maintaining. I keep it in that list, chiefly, for reasons of nostalgia!

Anyway, a couple of years ago, I sought to do that minimal maintenance a bit more systematically. I grabbed my copy of Routledge’s Colloquial Hebrew, trawled the first six chapters for vocabulary, and dumped it into Anki. I set my Hebrew deck to drip through a single new card a day, and just let time do the rest.

Overall, it’s been a brilliant, low-key method for solidifying all that ultra-basic stuff. But, every now and again, I do struggle to recall certain words. And surprise, surprise, it’s usually those that look a little bit similar to others. It’s adabu-ajabu all over again!

Seeing it through Anki eyes gave me a new perspective on it, though. In test mode, mix-ups are largely artefacts of the isolated vocabulary item problem. It crops up time and time again in polyglot social media circles: don’t drill words, drill structures. Disembodied parts of speech have little salience on their own. Your brain needs something to hang them onto.

Damage Limitation

Of course, when all your Anki cards are done, you’re already in a bit of a bind over this. You could go back and update all your cards to be sentences (sourcing them from a bank like Tatoeba, for example). But that’s a lot of work.

Instead, you can embed mixological words in some kind of context on the fly. When cross-contamination occurs, think of a phrase – however short – to include the word in. Use alliteration, rhyme, any trick to make it stick. Say it out loud, enjoy the sound of it, visualise it. And try to recall that same phrase whenever the troublesome word pops up again. For my Swahili pair, I came up with:

  • mji wa ajabu (a wonderful town)
  • dada mwenye adabu (a good-mannered sister)

In both cases I’ve chosen a word repeating the troublesome letter (d/j) to highlight the problem sound. I won’t say I never mix them up now – but it has certainly helped.

From my novice Hebrew, another example shows that you can sometimes even combine them together. Take tsar (tight, narrow) and tsad (side). Smoosh them up into tsad tsar (narrow side), and they might just end up sorting each other out.

What words do you tend to mix up in your target language? And how do you go about fixing it? Let us know in the comments!

A picture of chopped onions and carrots. Cooking - food for the language learning soul as well as the stomach?

Slow Cooking for Languages

I’m rubbish at cooking.

Don’t get me wrong – I can follow a recipe and whip up something edible if I really have to. But I’ve never had the creativity or passion in the kitchen to be an Ainsley or an Akis. I’m much more of a food-taker than a cake-baker.

It was a bit out of character, then, as I bookmarked scores of cheap, hearty recipes to experiment with lately. I guess it’s a sign of the times, first and foremost. With talk of widespread price rises and shortages, and it just seemed like a canny idea to get a handle on some proper home economics. Out with the ready-made, in with Lentils 101 Ways.

But what has this got to do with language learning? Well, cooking over the past few weeks has one unintended but fantastic side-effect on my studies.

It slowed me down.

Language Learning – Fast and Slow

My concentration when studying can be skittish at the best of times. I put it down to an active, inquisitive brain, serving up a mixture of excitement (for what I’m learning) and impatience (to plough through everything at once). But whatever the cause, it leaves me with an attention span I have to rule with an iron fist, lest it get the better of me.

That makes certain language learning tasks quite difficult, not least listening. Podcasts, for instance, have to be short and snappy (or easily chunkable so I can pause and come back as I need). Hands need to be away from the controls so I don’t resist the urge to skip or switch (the language podcast equivalent of sofa-bound channel-hopping). And I need to step away from the computer screen and all its tangential distractions. That will start innocently enough, of course. I’ll look up word in an online dictionary, mid-podcast. But then, I’ll fall down a rabbit hole of links as I completely forget the episode playing in the background.

So, imagine my discomfort when rustling up some lentil gratin on Wednesday evening. I switch on a podcast to listen to while I prepare dinner, and settle into my prep. Deep into chopping and prepping, I feel that urge to jump on – but I can’t. Nope; hands covered in garlic and onions, I’m bound to the chopping board. A captive audience. All I can do is take a deep breath, and stifle that urge. 

Kitchen activities, it turns out, are a fantastic aid to my concentration when working with audio materials. You’ve heard of slow cooking – well, this was slow language learning (in the best possible sense). And, what’s more, it works with all those audio books I’ve downloaded and not found time to listen to yet, too.

Sometimes all we need is to slow down and smell the cooking.

What slows you down and trains your focus? Let us know in the comments!

A Short and Easy Modern Greek Grammar (Gardner 1892). Dense, but thorough descriptions!

Feeling Dense When It Don’t Make Sense

When I first started learning Greek many years ago, as a very inexperienced polyglot-in-the-making, I remember trying to get to grips with an interesting quirk of pronunciation – and feeling a little dense when it didn’t make sense at first.

It was all about stress placement. Specifically, something a bit funny can happen in Greek when a little word like μου (mou – my) follows a polysyllabic word. The longer word gets an extra stress accent – very strange considering the fact that Greek words usually only have a single stressed syllable.

το διαμέρισμα (to diamérisma – the flat)
το διαμέρισμά μου (to diamérismá mou – my flat)

I remember reading this in some dusty old grammar I got from the library, and not quite getting it. I made a mental note that the stress can sometimes change under certain circumstances, and left it at that, feeling ever so slightly befuddled (but undeterred!).

With time, of course, I came across lots of examples of this happening in Greek texts and speech. And with that exposure, my hit-and-miss attempts at reproducing it, and my eventual improvement, came a kind of instinct for where it takes place.

Getting Technical

Wind forward a good twenty years, and I’m leafing through a Modern Greek grammar primer from 1892 (as you do). A Short and Easy Modern Greek Grammar was an introductory text originally penned by German Karl Wied, and released in a translation by Mary Gardner in 1892. As it’s such an old, copyright-expired book, it’s quite easy to get a PDF scan of it, such as this 1910 edition at the Internet Archive.

I love these texts for the insight they give into how the target language itself has changed in recent years. But they also offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of foreign language education. How things have changed in a hundred-and-twenty years! But then again, how they stay the same. The technical descriptions aren’t vastly different from the thorough explanations you’ll find in a Routledge Comprehensive Grammar. Well, maybe a little extra Victorian bombast, but the format has remained surprisingly static over a century.

Page from a Short and Easy Modern Greek Grammar (Gardner 1892). Dense, but thorough descriptions!

A Short and Easy Modern Greek Grammar (Gardner, after Wied, 1892)

Right there, on page eight, is that accent phenomenon I struggled with as a youth. The description is given in quite traditionalist, grammatical language. It explains that the stress-jumping occurs with enclitics, snippets of words so short that they lack an accent of their own and almost merge into the preceding word.

It’s a technically accurate and comprehensive explanation. But I probably wouldn’t have had a clue if I’d read it there first!

A Time and a Place

There are two points to make here. First, don’t be fazed if you struggle to get difficult grammatical points in traditional texts. With enough exposure to real language, you’ll develop your own instinct for these intricacies. There’s a time and a place for comprehensive, formal grammars, and it’s probably not at the very start of your journey (as much as I love to geek out with hundred-year-old tomes).

Secondly, it’s not that such resources are not useful at all. It’s just that they’re perhaps better used when you have a bit of a handle on the language already, and you are ready for the why as well as the how. It’s also a nice reminder that a little time and experience can make a huge difference with language learning.

What first seemed dense and inaccessible can make complete sense when you revisit it with some street-learned smarts.

Polyglotised Products

I keep coming across what you might call polyglotised products lately. You know the kind of thing: emblazoned with motivational or humorous snippets in a number of languages, usually achingly corny and twee, and all too often containing a few errors to create some associated unintended comedy. From the welcome to… artwork at airports to that multilingual Christmas cross-stitch that comes out once a year, you can find multilingual cheesiness in all sorts of places.

As naff as they can be, there is something snugly positive about these chintzy embellishments. For the wistful polyglots, they’re a nod to the world beyond. For the philosophical, they acknowledge that despite language differences, humans tend to express the same kinds of everyday thoughts the world over. And for the rest of us, they’re just plain fun. I think they deserve to be celebrated whenever we see them in our otherwise blandly monolingual societies.

Corny polyglot fun

I spotted a corker of one recently: a polyglot ashtray, sitting incongruously outside a café pub in the city centre. It’s all the sweeter for the fact that it looks homemade, and well-loved, judging by the wear around the edges. There’s that folk irony there too, a hint of sarcasm, with the – ahem – hilarious decision to adorn an ashtray with “I will quit tomorrow”. Firmly in the “my other car’s a Lamborghini” tradition. Just glorious.

In any case, these things bring a dash of light-hearted silliness to a sometimes dark world, not to mention a smile to the face of those that understand a snatch of their target language in them.

Three polyglot cheers for cheese!

Have you come across any nice specimens on your travels? What are your favourites? Let us know in the comments!

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.