Social Training Time

Just like my fancy Philips UV-C box, sometimes, the biggest leg-ups to our language learning come from unlikely sources. So it is with community volunteering as a kind of social training, which, as a shy linguist, is something I try to throw myself into – sometimes against my kicking-and-screaming inner child – at every available opportunity.

This week, I had another opportunity for just that. In April, Brum is hosting the Union Cup, an exciting, international and inclusive sporting event that has been a couple of years in the waiting after Covid disruption. After last year’s Commonwealth adventures, it was a no-brainer to volunteer. A chance to showcase the city, support communities and get some valuable exposure therapy when it comes to interacting with lots of people. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that there’ll be speakers of lots of other languages around too.

It’s all an antidote to a very specific language learning problem I’ve experienced. It’s that reluctance to step forward and speak in a situation where I can use my languages. I’ve felt it at home and in my target language countries. It’s a complex beast, with several components: fear of making mistakes, looking silly, feeling a nuisance or a bother, and such like. Most of us feel these things from time to time, but there’s nothing like a foreign language to up those stakes!

Targeted Therapy

But the social training that volunteering offers is almost perfectly suited to target all this. For one thing, in many roles, you’re almost constantly dealing with people face-to-face. And you never know what to expect. Sometimes you’ll get the whole spectrum of moods – good and bad – in the course of a morning. Someone might ask a question you have no clue about. Something might happen that requires you to think on your feet.

In short, it’s a social training that focuses on coping with the unpredictable. And if there’s anything that typifies using language in the wild, it’s unpredictability. What else, for something as varying as its human hosts?

So, into the fray we step for our social training. And even for shrinking violets like me, people work can get addictive. I now count amongst my friends serial volunteers who go for everything that comes along. Of course, it doesn’t have to be volunteering. I have a polyglot friend who is getting lots of people exposure from bar work, which he unexpectedly loves, and is thriving on.

On that note, fellow shy polyglots – and even those not-so-shy ones who want to keep their oar in – volunteer! It’ll be so good for you – and your community, too.

An old book about to cook in the Philips UV-C Disinfection Box.

The Philips UV-C Disinfection Box : An Unlikely Language Learning Ally?

It’s not often I rave about a purchase that isn’t a language book. But I think I might have fallen in love with my latest gadget acquisition, the Philips UV-C Disinfection Box.

Language learning and automated sanitisation don’t seem like natural bedfellows, I’ll admit. But bear with me – there is a connection, I promise.

I’ve been an avid collector of vintage language books for some time now. I particularly enjoy hunting down old Teach Yourself books from decades gone by. They’re both quaint and practical. I can enjoy all the anachronisms of their stilted dialogues and translation exercises at the same time as getting a lot from the no-nonsense grammatical approach.

But, in the words of my Nan, sometimes you just don’t know where they’ve been. And, for an OCD germaphobe, that can be a problem. Of course there are lots of tips and tricks for cleaning up and restoring old books, and I use them all. But there’s that wee niggling doubt for a sensitive soul like me.

Dial ‘D’ for Disinfection

I came across UV-C disinfection techniques during the Covid-19 pandemic, where they were touted in the press as one tool that libraries, amongst other places, were using to virus-proof their returns. Just seconds of a low-power ultraviolet blast apparently kills any sign of dangerous microbes.

Wow. The cleaning freak in me was piqued. This, I thought, was an OCD-er’s dream.

Sadly, at the time, they were prohibitively expensive. Perhaps, I thought cynically, the inflated price was a result of pandemic-driven demand. Or, perhaps less cynically, it was just the premium of new(ish) technology. But in any case, I bided my time and eventually forgot about them – until they recently popped into my line of sight again.

You see, I’d added one particular model – my inner hygiene-geek’s dream model – to the Amazon price tracker site, I’d requested an alert whenever the price dropped from £170-ish to – I thought – a very unlikely £60. And guess what? It only went and did just that.

The Philips UV-C Disinfection Box.

My pride and joy, the Philips UV-C Disinfection Box.

So now, I’m the proud owner of a large disinfection box. It works like a charm – you lock in your book or otherwise, press the button, and it’s blasted with a sanitising beam for a number of seconds. It destroys all bacteria and viruses in Philips’ lab tests, so they say, which gives this second-hand book buyer a huge peace of mind.

I guess this is a story about the joys of clean books, on the surface (in more ways than one). But perhaps more usefully, it’s a reminder to put your most wished-for items onto!

A book in the Philips UV-C Disinfection Box.

Cooking a book in the Philips UV-C Disinfection Box.

Building a habit, like eating more fruit, takes time and strategy.

In the Line of Sight : Throwing Habits in Your Path

Sometimes, building a good language learning habit is about giving your brain a leg-up with good environmental clues.

In fact, the same is true for any habit. If you want to incorporate a new one, start with what you already have. You can use your existing routine to give it a piggyback. It’s known as habit stacking, and a key part of many habit coaching guides.

A fruity habit

For an everyday, non-language example, take fruit consumption. For too long, I’ve not included enough in my diet (and I know I’m not alone here!). It’s not for want of knowing. I’m well aware of the five-a-day rule (aren’t we all?), but having advice consciously available does not equate to remembering to act upon it.

The crux of it: it’s jolly hard to build a new habit when it’s free-floating in isolation.

It was time for a bit of habit-stacking to tether my intended new habit to something solid. And what’s more solid than the first thing I do in the morning? Religiously, after getting up, I’ll sit at my desk with a pot of coffee.

So what about putting a bowl full of fruit on my desk? Right in the line of sight.

Building a habit, like eating more fruit, takes time and strategy.

Building a habit, like eating more fruit, takes time and strategy.

It’s even more powerful when you simplify those tethered habits too. A big win was admitting to myself that I’ll only eat easy-access fruit. Yes, I’m that lazy. Satsumas and bananas for me, and no having to plan in cutting up or preparing anything.

It worked a treat. Having a couple of pieces of fruit is now a natural part of my day, and I’m reaching for the chocolate bars and crisps less. Habit-stacking made it automatic, and it’s now simply routine.

From Fruit to Phone

So how do these fruity shenanigans transpose onto language learning? How can we throw that into our daily paths to regularise our polyglot habits?

Since a lot of my learning is digital, that means acting on my digital environment to habit-stack. My stalwart apps, Anki and Duolingo, are on the first page of my Home Screen, so they’re the first thing I see when I switch on each morning. I’ve also turned off notifications for most of my apps, but I ensure they’re left on for that pair, so they cut through the noise.

A more low-fi method I’ve used in the past is the mini whiteboard. I picked one of these up from Poundland years ago, and it sits dutifully on my hall wall, usually carrying grocery and appointment reminders. But it’s in my line of sight every time I enter or leave the home, so it would be a wasted opportunity not to enlist that in my language adventures. Needless to say, there’s now a spot on it reserved for a word of the day/week/month, usually lifted from some problematic Anki deck I’ve been working on.

In short, habit-stacking works. And the beauty of it is that it’s so simple. so simple, in fact, that I sometimes forget to do it (the whole can’t see what’s right under your nose syndrome, I guess). So, for me, writing about it in this blog – one of my firm weekly habits – should provide that stacking action I need.

Have you habit-stacked to self-train a language routine? Which habits have you paired up? Let us know in the comments!

Harris, the setting for many Gaelic dramas. Image from

Waiting for the Gaelic TV Ferry

In Gaelic, they say am fear a bhios fada aig an aiseig, gheibh e thairis uaireigin. The one who waits for a long time at the ferry will get over eventually. And so it is with Gaelic TV. If you wait long enough, another gem will always come along.

It’s a ferry I’ve been hoping to catch for a while now. You see, if you’re looking to create a language learning immersion environment at home, it does help if there’s already an abundance of quality resources.

For some languages, it’s no problem. Greek, Iceland, Norwegian and Polish, for example, have the weight of well-established national broadcasters behind them, and a plethora of commercial channels to boot. There’s such a wealth of output that you just know you’ll find something to watch as gripping as Happy Valley or as fun as Strictly. There’ll be something that ticks off both your learning needs and your sofa downtime.

On the other hand, if you’re dealing with languages that have minority status, it can feel a lot harder. With all the will in the world, it’s been a challenge to replace my everyday entz with Gaelic pop media. It’s thanks largely to the BBC that there are globally available resources, namely Radio nan Gàidheal and BBC Alba. They’re truly wonderful, and the learner community is deeply grateful for them. That said, it’s just a guess, but they’re probably not top of the BBC’s funding list. The result is a lack of variety that leaves learners scrabbling for stuff that grabs their personal interest.

Gaelic Gems

Now and again, though, a gem pops up. BBC Alba is gradually urning its drama arm into a well-oiled machine, evident in the popular, long-running series Bannan. That machine has just churned out an excellent new mini-series, An Clò Mòr, following the trials and tribulations of a weaving mill in the islands. It’s has all the ingredients of a great soap – family psychodrama, wheeling and dealing, guarded secrets – but the gravity of a primetime drama with superb performances from some familiar faces. Add to that the stunning island backdrop, and it’s a real telly treat to curl up on the sofa to.

So, at last, another ferry has arrived. And thankfully, it looks like BBC Alba is becoming adept at launching them out more and more regularly.

Roll on the next one!

Do you struggle to find target language pop culture swap-outs for your everyday media? What gems have you found? Let us know in the comments!

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

Short Stories… in ChatGPT

It’s no secret – reading fiction is a favourite strategy of polyglot learners. That’s more than simply reading Harry Potter novels in translation. There’s a whole market sector that revolves around non-native short stories, and I’m not alone in enjoying the excellent Short Stories In… or Penguin Parallel Texts series to practise my languages.

But what if we could source those stories on demand… and for free?

Unless you’ve been hiding for the past three months, you’ll know where I’m going with this. ChatGPT, the natural language processor, has already made ripples in the fan fiction arena. And, it turns out, it has a knack for performing the same feat multilingually, and tailored to your exact needs.

The power of it becomes apparent when you ask it to write you a story. Because you can tailor that story precisely to your own interests. Personal interest, of course, is a holy grail with language learning motivation. And ChatGPT is like your own private author, ready to fit original content to exactly what you like.

I started where I started – literally, with languages – and requested a German short story about Eurovision. What else? The results were pretty impressive.

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

The only thing is, it’s a bit wordy for my (hypothetical) class of German students. So I ask ChatGPT to tailor it to a specific level:

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

Tailoring the story to a specific level.

Brilliant – we’re getting something we can turn into a learning resource now. But I’d love my students to focus on more descriptive adjectives to improve their writing. Can we turn this into a better model?

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

Tweaking the output with specific criteria.

Again, ChatGPT turns up the goods! The German is sound, and the story is a fun little read. But what about making this a polyglot resource, parallel resource, so anyone learning more than one language can keep their learning in sync? No problem:

ChatGPT writing a short story in French.

Translation into French.

Impressive. It has no issue with any of what you’d call the mainstream languages. I tried it in all of the languages I have some proficiency in, and it even churns out decent Greek and Polish. I’m not yet fluent enough in Scottish Gaelic to check this properly, but it seemed the only one that was a bit iffy, despite giving it a good go:

ChatGPT writing a short story in German.

A translation into Scottish Gaelic.

Finally, let’s throw in a short summary version we can use as revision materials, or an item description:

ChatGPT writing a short story in French.

A short summary of the story in French.

Obviously, this all comes with the caveat that it needs careful checking before use as an accurate resource. But the initial performance is pretty spectacular, to be honest. As the model is tweaked and improved, it’s not hard to imagine this becoming a cornerstone of personal resource creation for learners of languages, as well as everything else.

The movement of atoms. The morpheme could be called the atom of language. Image from

Houston, We Have A Morpheme Problem

It was in Greek class that I realised it. I have a morpheme problem.

Yes, those pesky little indivisible chunks of languagey-ness are causing me grief. The exact nature of that grief is a regular mixing up of pronouns and possessives with s- (you) and t- (him/his/her), to the amusement of my teacher.

Πού είναι ο μπαμπάς του… ΣΟΥ; Pou íne o babás tou… SOU?
Where is his… YOUR dad?

The source? Probably the romance languages I’ve learned, where the correspondence is reversed. French has ton (your) and son (his/her), for example, while Spanish has tu and su. The romance you/he/she attachment to those tiny little chunks has reasserted itself temporarily (I hope) to wreak happy havoc.

Yes, interference is real, and it’s not just about whole words – it’s a morpheme thing, too.

Morpheme Madness

In reality, it’s nothing to worry about. It’s a natural by-product of a brain built for pattern-spotting, and studies of bilingual infants show that we’re well-equipped to remedy it in the natural course. I can talk about it now because I realised I was doing it, and self-corrected along the way.

But what else can I do about in the immediate term?

Much of it is to do with voice, at least for me. Cultivating distinct voices for each language you learn is a great way to compartmentalise and separate. But unless you’re a gifted impressionist, your repertoire might be limited, and you might have to double up. I realised my Greek voice was suspiciously like my Spanish one., all faux-masterful and brooding. No doubt a bit of clowning around and trying new accents on might help there.

But it’s an ideal case for mass-sentence training too, which I’d become lax with of late. Glossika has a ton of sentences including those little σου and του, and an extra five or ten minutes of training a day will – I hope – re-cement the little imps into my Hellenic pathways.

Have you noticed interference between your languages at the morpheme level? What are your strategies for re-enforcing separation? Let us know in the comments!

The Linguascope Conference 2023 : Inclusivity in Language Teaching

The Duty of Inclusivity : Matching Language to Social Reality

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

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

Framing Inclusivity

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

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

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

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

Individual Duty

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

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

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

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

Anki Enhanced Cloze

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

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

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

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

Native Cloze in Anki

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

Ich habe einen {c1::Hund}.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enhanced Cloze

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

A screenshot of a learning flashcard made with Anki Enhanced Cloze

Anki Enhanced Cloze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the bank?

And you can use it as a relative:

I know where you are.

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

False Equivalencies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It may be less than half the story!

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

Hindi : An Essential Grammar [Review]

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

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

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

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

Script Support

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

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

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

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