Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Excel for Polyglots: Comparative audits to keep languages in sync

Duolingo, Memrise, Anki, Microsoft Excel. Huh, wait – Excel? How is that a language learning app?

Well, the Office software has some handy features that just happen to be right up our street as language learners. Namely, the ability to curate and administer lists in table form. And it just happens that this can be particularly useful if you learn more than one language.

One source of frustration as a polyglot learner is the discrepancy of vocabulary level between languages. This can be most obvious with fairly close language pairs. For instance, when practising Icelandic, I often realise that I know a term in Norwegian – but not the language I am trying to speak.

So how best to address these discrepancies?

Language auditing

Getting into the habit of performing a regular language audit, such a revisiting beginner materials is a good strategy for any learner. But one particularly powerful method for multi-language learners is the comparative audit.

In short, a comparative audit is simply taking stock of which words you know in one language, but not the other.

At the very early stages of learning a language, this can be as easy as scanning down a list. But when you get to the point of having hundreds and hundreds of words in your vocab store, the task is mammoth.

Enter Excel, data wizard!

Microsoft Excel and VLOOKUP

Most of us will have used Excel or another spreadsheet program at some point. But like me, you might not have gone beyond basic numerical information and a few simple sum functions.

It turns out that Excel is pretty good at handling textual data too. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Yes, vocabulary lists! And it has a special function, VLOOKUP, which allows you to compare data between two tables. Sounds just perfect for our comparative audit.

Here’s how to enlist Excel to your polyglot cause in a few simple(-ish) steps.

Step 1: Port your data into Excel

First things first – you have to get your vocabulary data into Excel. The easiest way is to export from your program of choice as a CSV (comma-separated values) or tab-delimited text file. If you use Anki, this is as easy as heading to File > Export and selecting ‘Notes in Plain Text (*.txt).

Ensure that you only export the basic data and no media or tags. Ideally, you should just be exporting a word and definition / translation field. My Norwegian and Icelandic decks, for example, are populated by vocab notes with an English and Target Language field.

Export a separate file for each of the two languages you want to compare. In my case, I end up with two files, norwegian.txt and icelandic.txt.

Exporting data from Anki

Exporting data from Anki

Step 2: Import your vocab into Excel

In Microsoft Excel, create a fresh spreadsheet document, and head to File > Import. Select Text File, hit Import and locate your first exported vocabulary file from above. To preserve accented characters in our Anki list, select Unicode (UTF-8) as the File origin.

Importing vocabulary into Excel

Importing vocabulary into Excel – note that ‘Unicode (UTF-8)’ has been selected as the file origin to make sure accented characters are handled correctly.

Create a second sheet in the same document, and import your other list of vocabulary into that. You should now have a two-sheet spreadsheet document, each sheet showing a list of words in a different language. For clarity, make sure you name your sheets too. Simply double-click on the tab titles “Sheet 1” etc. to do that.

Step 3: Format your lists as tables

In each sheet, click and drag across the table to select your whole vocabulary list as a block. Now, click Format as Table in the Home section of the function ribbon / toolbar. It doesn’t really matter which style you use – I choose the colour I like best!

Once that’s done, change the new column headers to something more meaningful than the default values. I use English and Norwegian in my example below. One caveat – you need to have a column with the same title in both your tables for the VLOOKUP trick to work. Here, English will be my common column between Norwegian and Icelandic.

Vocabulary data formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel

My Norwegian vocabulary data formatted as a table in Microsoft Excel

Now, instantly, these is already more useful to us than static lists. Formatting as a table means you can use the column heading drop-downs to sort and filter your entries. Try it – sort alphabetically on the target language column. You’ve turned your data into a nifty dictionary! Not our primary goal, but a nice trick on the way.

Before we go on, it’s a good idea to name our tables so they are easy to refer to later. To do this, click anywhere in your table, then switch to the Table tab in the ribbon / toolbar. The simpler, the better – below, I just call mine Icelandic.

Naming a table in Excel

Naming a table in Excel

But now it’s the turn of our star, VLOOKUP. This is where the real magic happens.

Step 4: Adding a comparative column

Click on the target language column header of your second table and copy it (CTRL + C). Now, go to your first table, select the cell next to the target language column header (C1 in my example), and paste (CTRL + V). It should add a blank new column within that table. Let’s fill it up!

In the first cell under that new column header, we type in our VLOOKUP formula. This will depend on what you have named your tables and sheets, but mine looks like this:

=VLOOKUP([@English], Icelandic, 2, 0)

Let’s dissect that just now. The first item in the brackets is the column of the first table we’ll use at the lookup – the English entry. The second item, Icelandic, is the table we’ll look for a value in. Remember, we named that table a little earlier. The third item, 2, is the column number we’ll look for that item in, which is the target language column of the Icelandic table. Finally the fourth value, 0, is a flag to Excel that we want exact matches only.

If that boggles, simply start typing =VLOOKUP( in the cell. That calls up Excel’s formula hints and point-and-click formula building, which should help you tie things together accurately.

After doing that, something special happens – suddenly, the whole column is filled with entries. If the English term was found in the Icelandic table, the corresponding Icelandic word is pulled in. If not, we simply get #N/A.

A quick note if that doesn’t work immediately: check that the data type of the cells in that third column are set to format as General, not Text.

A cross-referencing table in Excel using VLOOKUP

Our first step in creating a cross-referencing table in Excel using VLOOKUP.

Not very tidy, is it? That #N/A is simply stating that the lookup resulted in nothing at all.

Step 5: Tying off the loose ends

We can make it all look better by wrapping it in another Excel formula, IFERROR. Change the formula in that first cell to:

=IFERROR(VLOOKUP([@English], Icelandic, 2, 0), "-")

This tells Excel to carry out our VLOOKUP function, but to return a dash if it results in an error (i.e., no data). Suddenly, it’s looking a lot neater.

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Cross-referencing vocabulary in Excel after some tidying is applied with IFERROR.

Now it is crystal clear where you know a word in one language but not the other. To make things even clearer, click the dropdown on that third column, and filter it to show just the dashed elements. There is your list of words to work on in the second language!

Filtering your vocabulary items in Excel.

Filtering your vocabulary items in Excel.

Alternatively, filter on everything but the dashes to revel in the wealth of words you know in both. Enjoy that moment of pride!

For reference, here’s an example Excel file comparing sample vocabulary in French and Spanish.

Where to go from here?

What you do next is up to you. But now, you have the data in your hands, and data is power: what you know, you can act on. Export the filtered list of gaps to work on learning missing vocabulary in any number of ways.

Clearly, you can take these techniques a lot further, too. Currently, the table only checks one way, such as Icelandic to Norwegian in my example. But you can experiment with the same techniques to create much more complex and comprehensive spreadsheets to interrogate both ways.

Lastly, I’ve used Microsoft Excel in this example, but the same functionality is available in other spreadsheet programs, too. The free alternative Google Sheets, for example, has its own VLOOKUP function that works in an almost identical manner. Play around with the tools available, and you can add that dull old spreadsheet package to your list of exciting, innovative language apps!

Have you given this trick a spin? Have any interesting and useful variations on it? Please share in the comments!

Accept yourself as a wonderful, fallible human being. Image from

Be fallible! Building resilience as a language learner

Human beings are fallible. We all make mistakes.

But our natural instinct is often to feel shame, and try to hide those mistakes. And so, this week, I give you the pep talk I would have loved as a newcomer to language learning. It is a lesson in the art of self-acceptance as a wonderful, fallible human being.

Starting out

When we engage in any passion, we get excited. We skip, run, and plough headfirst and giddy into new experiences. We race ahead, full of anticipation, eyes darting gleefully about, trying to take it all in. Learning new skills can be exhilarating!

Sometimes, however, we fall.

There’s no escaping the fact that sometimes, failing can feel like a painful knock. And it comes in many forms. It could be the local who brushed you off rudely after your attempts to speak the language. It could be a grumpy teacher giving corrections in an unhelpful, unsympathetic tone. In these days of lives lived online, it may frequently come in the form of unrequested, unconstructive feedback. A recent article of mine, for example, attracted commentary which came across as, shall we say, well grounded, but not exactly friendly.

What do all these things have in common? They all involve a stumble or a fall in front of others who react negatively. And they involve a degree of shame that can leave us questioning our credibility in what suddenly seems like an insurmountably giant world. Shame is a terrifyingly fierce demotivator. All at once, that excitement pales against a niggling feeling of being a fraud or impostor.

Now, it is easy to let these things hurt us. What is harder, but so much more useful in the long run, is to let these things galvanise us. So how can we best buttress ourselves against mean-spirited engagements?

Embracing your fallibility is key.

Fantastically fallible

We are all fallible. We all make mistakes. Not to do so is simply not to be human.

Look at it this way – if we refuse to accept we are fallible, it is tantamount to saying we have nothing to learn. That we are perfect already. And resting on your laurels is a great way to stop learning anything at all.

It’s a salient point in a world full of ‘perfect’ polyglot role models. Who do you relate to more – someone who admits that the road is sometimes bumpy, or someone who claims to have all the answers?

Cultivating thankfulness

As language learners, we expose ourselves to the risk of being very fallible in a very public arena. The trick to developing a thicker skin is to cultivate a thankfulness and gratitude for every smarting knock.

Yes! If someone knocks you down, thank them for it. They have given you a gift – even if it was with a grimace.

Feedback of all kinds helps us to improve, even the curmudgeonly kind. See that negative shroud as a product of the kind of day the other person is having, rather than a fault of your own. Then take whatever lesson was wrapped in it, move on, and grow.

In learning and using foreign languages, we ultimately deal with people, and people are inherently unpredictable. Many will be lovely. Others not so much. Simply face them all with no expectation but to learn. Putting yourself out there with this shield of thankfulness is an excellent way to practise and build resilience.

You might worry that your failures come from trying to do too much, too soon. Are you putting yourself out there too early? Are you trying to run before you can walk? But it is only through pushing boundaries that we progress. For a little extra support, you can also try safe environments to make mistakes amongst friends, like the excellent 30-Day Speaking Challenge.

Keep trying to run. Those falls are worth the ground gained.

Stand up. Invite criticism. Accept that it might not always be constructive. And be proud of yourself as a fallible, but ever-learning human being.

A new calendar means new language learning resolutions. But how to stick to them? (Image from

Calendar blocking: a little book to bust your rut

Oh, how the days of a new year sometimes seem to melt into an ambling, amorphous mess. From the high hopes of resolutions to the January Blues, language learning motivation can be in short supply in this cruellest of months. Dry Vocabanuary, as one friend succinctly puts it. One thing is keeping me on track at the moment: calendar blocking.

You see, my natural, inborn tendency – despite the treasure of posts on language learning planning and productivity – is to veer into disorganisation. I try not to beat myself up too much for this. As Daniel Kahnemann explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow, human brains evolved to try and make it easy on themselves. They can make an effort when they really have to, but even then, only in short bursts, like a surly teenager.

What helps in bucketloads is a routine to act as a stricter, more explicit executive in charge of self-direction. So, every night, I put on Manager Ricky hat. I imagine my tomorrow self as a third-party employee to delegate to. With my larger objectives in mind, I plan my next day’s work and study in more-or-less hourly chunks.

The resulting plan is loose and flexible enough not to feel stifling, with in-built breaks (Pomodoro is your friend!). But it defines goals tightly enough to prevent focus-drift into an unproductive mush.

In short, it makes me a better worker and learner.

Calendar blocking with purpose-built pads

Now, who doesn’t like a new item of stationery? There is something exciting and motivating about a fresh, shiny, empty notebook that e-tools like Evernote – however brilliant – can fail to replicate.

To that end, I treated myself to the organisational geek’s perfect purchase for a productive 2020: this natty daily planning pad! This purpose-designed calendar blocking pal is simplicity to use. The star of each page is an hour-by-hour rundown of the day, with extra space for the most important to-do items. Being compact at just A5 size, it also discourages over-planning. The overarching ethos is keep it clear, keep it simple.

Calendar blocking with a brand new pad!

Calendar blocking with a brand new pad!

You don’t need a special pad, of course. I just like new stationery, so any excuse. But any medium will work, as long as you can map out the day in roughly hour-long sections, and cross-reference with key to-dos.

Your very own Hogwarts

So far, so good using the pad. In the most satisfying way, it does feel a little like writing your own special daily school timetable. If you are a fan of ambitious personal improvement regimes, or want to create your own personal Hogwarts of horizon-broadening lessons, then this will appeal greatly.

Admittedly, I am not quite at the point of scheduling lessons in potions and transfiguration. But there is always a sense that this is my à la carte plan for developing myself in ways that are magical for me. Namely languages – and if you are reading this blog, chances are that will be your magic, too.

Have you employed other productivity hacks into your language learning routine? Let us know in the comments!

A thistle. Learn Gaelic, know Scotland a little better. Image from

Exhausted Duolingo Gaelic already? Try these resources for size!

Got your Gaelic fix with Duolingo but hungry for more? You’re not alone. The ubiquitous language learning platform delighted users with its latest addition. But like all first-phase courses, it is not the lengthiest – yet.

More will almost certainly be in the pipeline, particularly given the popularity of the course. But you don’t have to play the waiting game – there are scores of great resources available to keep you going.

Never fear – as an incorrigible bibliophile, I’ve beavered my way through a heap of beginners’ materials, so you don’t have to. And however solid and ever-present the Teach Yourself and Routledge Colloquial courses are, there’s more to language learning life than just those. So enjoy some of these less obvious newcomers’ picks below for a varied foray into elementary Scottish Gaelic!

Ceumannan – Stòrlann

Ceumannan means footsteps in Gaelic, and is also the name of the secondary level textbook used to teach Gaelic in schools. Despite being aimed at kids, it covers all the ground you’d expect of any good primer course. So much so, in fact, that it is the textbook of choice in my Gaelic evening class at Edinburgh University.

Book one is the chunkiest of the five-volume set. This is its strength – the basics are thoroughly recycled again and again in different contexts throughout the book. By the end of it, you should really have mastered the basics of Gaelic syntax.

Ceumannan, the elementary Gaelic course for schools - and adult learners!

Ceumannan, the elementary Gaelic course for schools – and adult learners!

Publishers Stòrlann have also made available all of the listening material on the free Ceumannan website. The site itself is beginning to look a little clunky and dated (the Flash games, for example, will no longer work for many), but it is still a goldmine of material for learners.

Gaelic without Groans – John MacKechnie

This next resource is a real treat, especially if you like the quirkiness of language manuals from a bygone age as much as I do.

John MacKechnie’s Gaelic without Groans dates from the middle of the last century, but saw multiple reprints over the decades. Although out of print now, you can still pick up second-hand copies very cheaply online or offline. It’s always popping up in second-hand bookshops across Edinburgh, for example.

This short, friendly and joyfully eccentric introduction to basic Gaelic is a gem. MacKechnie adopts a chatty, informal style from the outset, introducing a point of basic grammar in each concise chapter. Core vocabulary appears in bite-sized chunks at the end of each section, with good old-fashioned drill exercises to hammer the points home.

John MacKechnie's Gaelic without Groans - a quirky joy from the cover to its contents!

John MacKechnie’s Gaelic without Groans – a quirky joy from the cover to its contents!

The very observant might notice a couple of discrepancies with one or two spellings, compared to much more modern learning resources. However, the differences are generally very minor. And in any case, they serve as a window onto the world of a language with plenty of dialect variation, and still undergoing many of the processes of standardisation.

Gaelic without Groans really is a joy – well worth a couple of pounds if you come across it!

Gràmar na gàidhlig – Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne’s Gràmar na Gàidhlig is another concise but packed book. Chock full of example sentences, it describes key points of Gaelic grammar in short, snappy sections. If you are struggling to understand the nuts and bolts in your other books, Gràmar na Gàidhlig puts them in terms that are very easy to understand.

The book itself is part of Gaelic language history, being a translation of the first Gaelic grammar with explanations completely in the language itself. In this English edition, you can take advantage of its clarity of instruction as a second language learner too.

BBC materials

As with Ceumannan, some of the most useful resources can be those aimed at young people. BBC Bitesize, the revision website, has a low-profile but very handy section for Gaelic learners. The target audience is students revising for Scottish school qualifications, but all learners will find the short grammar summaries useful. Some sections, like this page on irregular verbs, contain some really practical vocabulary lists, too.

Of course, the BBC in Scotland has a history of Gaelic instruction that goes further back than the Internet days. Former flagship Gaelic offering Speaking Our Language still has legendary status. That’s thanks in part to some pretty cheesy dialogue and hammy acting, but nonetheless, it is an excellent place to learn some Gàidhlig.

Supporting course book for BBC's Speaking Our Language

A supporting course book for BBC’s Speaking Our Language

The excellent site has repackaged some of the Speaking Our Language material for use online, including supporting exercises. That said, you can also catch repeats on BBC Alba, or find the programmes in their full, original, 1990s glory on YouTube. Revel in the nostalgia those yesteryear fashions inspire!

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Finally, if apps are your thing, you can still get a little vocabulary and grammar practice beyond Duolingo with Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz by Geoglot. Available on iOS and Android, the app doubles as a reference and drill tool. John MacKechnie would probably have loved those translation-based games.

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Life beyond Duolingo

So there you have five places to continue your Gaelic beyond the green owl. Of course, this list can only scratch the surface of what is available. Honourable mentions must go to Gaelic in Twelve Weeks, and the now antiquated original edition of Teach Yourself Gaelic, and all the others yet to cross my path.

But for a bit of resource-hunting of your own, try perusing the items at Stòrlann, the Gaelic publishing house. And, of course, a trip to any good second-hand bookshop in Scotland!

Hopefully, this little selection shows that whether on page or screen, there is life beyond Duolingo. Explore, enjoy, and please share any of your own resource tips in the comments below!

A firework mid-display! Image from

New year, new goals: a language resolutions toolkit

New year, new decade. And time again for lots of New Year language learning resolutions and great intentions.

Twitter is awash with plans, hopes and dreams from language enthusiasts far and wide. We certainly know what we want out of 2020. But how to best go about it?

Arm yourself with the right kit with these top tools for staying on track!

Get your streak on in Anki

One of the most motivating, keep-on-track features of platforms like Duolingo is the streak feature. However, this is not always available in staple, bare bones vocabulary drill tools like Anki.

That is, until Review Heatmap came along!

This desktop Anki add-on helps you keep daily momentum by offering stats like streak and past performance. The heatmap graph allows you to glance forward and gauge how many card reviews are coming your way in future. An excellent way for language geeks to stick to daily vocabulary resolutions.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Resolutions reminders

Establishing a new routine and changing ways can be tough as a typical creature-of-habit human being. Thankfully, there are plenty of to-do list apps to help organise our resolutions, and Wunderlist has been one of the best (not to mention free).

You can organise goals and subgoals using the rich, tiered reminders in the app. Personally, I like to take a weekly tactics approach, with regular repeated tasks. This is a piece of pie to set up on Wunderlist, with phone notifications to remind you when items are due to be ticked off.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Now, since I first began proselytising about the app, it seems to have caught the attention and imagination of the bigwigs. The upshot is that the company and app will morph into Microsoft To-Do by May 2020. So somebody was clearly listening!

Luckily, everything that made Wunderlist so great looks set to stay. So, jump straight into Microsoft To-Do if you want to give to-do organising a go with your languages. Existing Wunderlist users can easily import their data into the new app, too.

Evernote for ever-ready resolutions

Talking of list-writing applications, cross-platform Evernote allows for to-do tick lists as well, amongst a geeksome cascade of other features.

Evernote is as much a place to plan as it is to collect, study, write and do just about anything else you need language-wise. Clip a web article into it to translate and create a vocabulary list from. Create your weekly plan in it, and let the app notify you when a review is due. Email yourself a list of words while you’re at work to pick up and work with later. Or snap a page of exercises from a textbook, and complete your answers in the note rather than deface your book. You can even share that note with your tutor for marking.

However you use it – and there are as many ways as there are users – Evernote can be a real workhorse for language learning.

And it’s free to use on a basic plan!

Write to remember with apps and reusable pads

My love of lists and notes betrays my true colours. I am a big proponent of good, old-fashioned writing to remember (as no doubt many of us are!).

I just love a scribble. And one of my all-time favourite techniques to take advantage of this for language learning is the brain dump. Regularly recycle what you’ve learnt by letting it all flow, as creatively as possible, onto a single page. Incidentally, this makes for a great weekly tactic in your resolutions to-do list above!

Now, for the sake of saving paper, I enjoy using sketch apps on my tablet to splurge:

A brain dump of elementary Irish

A brain dump of elementary Irish

However, nothing quite beats traditional pen and paper. Thankfully, there is a tech-savvy way to work traditional media into your 2020 resolutions without working through a forest:

Rocket Pad - stick to your writing resolutions without wasting trees! Image from

Rocket Pad – stick to your writing resolutions without wasting trees!

The best of resolutions

And before you set off, keep in mind the best of all language learning resolutions: have fun. Language learning should never be a chore, but always a joy. Explore, dabble, and never feel guilty for doing what you love.

Just revel in that love of words.

Good luck with all your language learning goals and resolutions for 2020. Happy New Year – and happy learning!

Ulangi – an Anki beater? [review]

Looking for some variety to your vocabulary routine? Ulangi is a new kid on the block, and is a promising new alternative to spaced repetition apps like our old favourite Anki. However, it comes with a few very special bells and whistles.

I know what you’re thinking. Anki is tough to beat in terms of learning science and control over your material. But ulangi manages to bundle that together with some features that make vocabulary mining a lot more streamlined.

One-stop shop

Here’s the thing. Like many of us, I am used to skipping between various apps and websites to research and then store/drill vocabulary. For instance, I often start off with a quick look-up of a word on Google Translate. Then, I’ll cross-reference that in Wiktionary to double-check its meaning. I might even search for example sentences containing that word on Tatoeba. Finally, it reaches my Anki deck!

Ulangi circumvents this circumlocution via the Discover tab. It really is a one-stop shop for vocabulary list-building. Type a word in English or the deck language, and matching references will pop up from services like Wiktionary and Google, in the app itself.

Ulangi allows you to source and collate vocabulary via its Discover tab

The discover tab is a comprehensive word-finder and list-builder

Better still – with a single tap, you can add them straight to your decks. For Wiktionary entries, that includes grammatical information like the part of speech, so you get a whole dictionary entry in a click. It works really smoothly and makes vocab mining very easy.

Expert editing

You can edit these terms before adding, or add them wholesale. I found that the automatic categories – often provided with Wiktionary entries, for example – sometimes needed tweaking before adding to your word lists. That’s no problem with the Edit before adding feature. It’s a little detail which shows that quite a bit of thought has gone into the app.

Now, one of the big advantages of Anki is that you can administer and fine-tune your vocabulary in the desktop app as well as the app. Ulangi interfaces with Google Sheets via an add-on in order to expose your decks’ entries for expert editing. While the process is a little fiddly, it will likely appeal to the tech geek in many of us.

Variety show

While vanilla Anki offers just its spaced repetition drills, Ulangi has a couple of extra games for off-piste learning. I especially like the multiple choice activity, which is perfect for doing a bit extra after the usual cut-off point of being ‘done’ with your Anki decks. It’s also a nice change from the “be honest” self-marking approach when you can be marked by the app automatically,

Additionally, you can play the more arcade-style Reflex and Atom, which are great additional twists on your vocab practice. These are separate from the main spaced repetition drills, so fall neatly into that “practise for fun” category.

Ulangi has a range of activities to practise your vocabulary

Atom is a fun twist on traditional spelling activities

Pick your languages

Ulangi requires you to specify the language of your deck from a predefined pot of 25. These include all the familiar faces like Chinese, French, Japanese and Spanish. But it’s also nice to see some more niche ones present, such as Polish and Norwegian (hoorah from me for those!).

Of course, specifying the language unlocks all those extra look-up features above, as well as text-to-speech audio on cards (something you’d need an extra plugin for in Anki). You can choose languages that aren’t included, but those funky facilities won’t be available then. It will be a treat to see which extra languages the developers add in coming months. Wishlist, developers: Iceland, Irish and Scottish Gaelic!

Ulangi flashcards include a handy text-to-speech utility if you select a language for your deck.

Built-in features like native text-to-speech make for a rich experience

Ulangi – By language geeks for language geeks

With its layered features and clean, no-nonsense look, Ulangi is very much an app for language geeks by language geeks. As a home for our precious words, it’s a pleasure to play around with and get to know.

The free version is fully functional, but so much care and attention has gone into the app that it more than justifies the £6.99 price tag for the premium version. A growing fan base will be following future developments with enthusiasm!

Ulangi is available from the iOS App Store and Google Play for free, with premium membership of the service at £6.99.

Like Irish and Scottish Gaelic, the landscapes of both countries can be remarkably similar. Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland. Image by Jeff Osborn,

Birds of a Feather Learn Irish and Scottish Gaelic Together

There are a ton of benefits to learning closely related languages together. And polyglot pairs don’t come much closer than Irish and Scottish Gaelic, island cousins with a fascinating history.

Under the extensive Dál Riata kingdom, Old Gaelic formed a continuum that stretched from Ireland to much of the West coast of Scotland. In the latter, it ultimately displaced the Pictish language, which many researchers believe was a Brittonic Celtic language more closely related to Breton, Cornish and Welsh.

The language, spanning two islands, was at the height of its cultural and political power in the eleventh century, after which a string of conquests began to erode its dominance. Politically separated and marginalised for hundreds of years, the two language groups went their own way, developing into distinct tongues with a much reduced mutual intelligibility.

Neither language has had it easy. Systematic neglect and aggressive anglicisation saw  both pushed to the peripheries of their respective lands. But now, thanks to individual and local government efforts, they are blossoming again. Gaelic in particular is starting to enjoy the revival efforts that gave Irish a shot in the arm, not least with the recent release of a brand new Duolingo course.

So how similar are they?

Perfect complements

Despite those long years apart in the wilderness, they remain remarkably close, particularly in grammar and syntax. They share some of the very typical – but, to newcomers, often surprising – features of Goidelic languages. When you get your head around those in one of them, then the heavy mental lifting is done for the other, too.

For instance, word order in both follows the verb-subject-object pattern, rather than the more familiar subject-verb-object of English and many other Indo-European languages. Just compare the phrase “the cat is big” in Irish and Scottish Gaelic to see the family resemblance:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
Tá an cat mór. Tha an cat mòr.

And yes, the accents go up in Irish and down in Scottish Gaelic – a satisfyingly quirky distinction!

But here’s our first difference: in the spoken rendering of that pair of sentences, you hear one of the phonetic foibles that set them apart, too. Tá/tha (‘is’), which must be amongst the top ten most frequent words in both languages, are pronounced /t̪ˠɑː/ and /haː/ respectively. The discrepancy really colours both languages, and is one of the first things to listen out for when trying to tell them apart (that, and the heavily rolled Scottish ‘r’!).


And that tá/tha leads us on to one of the big differences for beginner learners: verbs in the present tense. Now, Irish still has a synthetic present. That is, it conjugates its present tense as a single word by changing endings on the verb stem.

However, Scottish Gaelic has lost that in favour of an analytic, or periphrastic formation – one that relies on auxiliary, or helper structures. It just so happens that this auxiliary is the very same tha (from the verb bi, to be).

Let’s take the verb ith (to eat), identical in Irish and Scottish Gaelic in its root form. Here is the present tense:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
ithim tha mi ag ithe
itheann tú tha thu ag ithe
itheann sé/sí tha e/i ag ithe
ithimid tha sinn ag ithe
itheann sibh tha sibh ag ithe
itheann siad tha iad ag ithe

The Scottish Gaelic form maps literally onto the English “I am at eating” and so on. It is a form that exists in Irish, but it retains its present continuous sense in that language. In Scottish Gaelic, it completely replaces the simple present tense forms.

That’s not to say that the pressures of change have left the Irish present tense untouched. In earlier Irish, all six persons of the present were different forms. Today, as you can see, only the first person singular and plural (I eat, we eat) have distinct forms, while the others are the same. For that reason, you still need to use the pronouns tú, sé/sí, sibh and siad to make clear who you are talking about in the Irish present.

Two to be

Talking of to be, you will have to get used to two ways to say it in both Irish and Scottish Gaelic. That may be nothing new, of course. If you have some Spanish, you will sympathise after trying to get a grip on ser and estar.

Irish and Scottish Gaelic distinguish between the regular ‘to be’ and a special copula verb, which speakers use predicatively to identify and classify. It is quite an unusual concept to an English speaker, and the logic behind use of the copula can seem complex at first.

Take the identifying phrase “I am Richard”, for example. Handily, it is identical in Irish and Scottish Gaelic. But it does not use the verb bi (which would be táim or tha mi respectively). Instead, we have:

Is mise Richard.

Again, become familiar with it in one language, and it will make complete sense when you come to learn the other!

There’s a doctor in me!

But wait – here’s one case where Scottish Gaelic goes off-script again. When talking about roles or professions, Irish uses a simple sentence with the copula, such as “I am a doctor”:

🇮🇪 Is dochtúir mé.

However, Scottish Gaelic uses a construction with bi that translates as something more like “I am in my doctor” (stifle those giggles!):

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 Tha mi nam dhotair.

Not only that, but there is an alternative way to express it which is more or less “it is a doctor that is in me“. This uses both the copula (shortened to ‘s) and the verb bi (tha):

🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 ‘s e dotair a th’ annam

It is the fascinating differences like these that make learning Irish and Scottish Gaelic together so rewarding.

Chuck an ‘h’ in

And this leads us on to the final observation in this beginner’s roundup. Did you notice that the word dotair for ‘doctor’ appears in two forms in the Scottish Gaelic sentences above? Well, that is due to a really important feature that both languages share, the phenomenon of lenition.

Lenition, as my Gaelic class teacher helpfully summarises, is the tendency to chuck an ‘h’ in at the beginning of words. The -h- is just orthographical, of course. The actual change is a softening, or weaking, of the initial consonant sound (lenis means ‘weak’ in Latin).

In short, under some grammatical conditions, this softening occurs to certain sounds. For instance, in both languages, lenition is triggered after the definite article the with feminine singular nouns:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
woman bean wife bean
the woman an bhean the wife a’ bhean

(Note also the difference in meaning that has crept in with bean between the languages.)

Lenition is device in so many grammatical contexts in both languages, many of them identical. It is also used to indicate the past tense:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
kiss póg pòg
kissed phóg phòg

If there is a difference between the languages, it is in how far sound changes like this are reflected in the orthography. Irish spelling seems generally a lot more indicative of phonetic phenomena, including coarticulation effects like eclipsis. Take ‘our boat’ in both languages:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
boat bád bàta
our boat ár mbád ar bàta

The spelling rules of Irish dictate that the phonetic changes of r + b are marked. However, Scottish Gaelic is a little less fussy!


Core vocabulary – the words that have been everyday terms for hundreds and hundreds of years – are still, pretty much, identical twins across the two languages. Here are a few food pairs in Irish / Scottish Gaelic:

  • arán (aran in Gaelic) (bread)
  • bainne (milk)
  • feoil (feòil in Gaelic) (meat)
  • iasg (fish)
  • im (ìm in Gaelic) (butter)
  • ispín (isbean in Gaelic) (sausage)

That said, a thousand years was enough to throw out a fair few differences in common terms, too, even if some words share a common root:

🇮🇪 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿
carrot cáiread curran
potato práta buntàta
soup anraith brot (cf. English ‘broth’)

What with those terms, and all that ‘eating’ earlier, I realise how fond I am of edible examples. I blame the wonderful food on offer in both Ireland and Scotland!

Goidelic adventure

For my part, I am still very much at the beginning of my Goidelic adventure. As such, this is very much a beginner’s overview of how the two languages relate to one other.

But already, studying both of them together has been a wonderful way to experience fairly recent language change in action. If you have any interest in historical linguistics, studying Irish and Scottish Gaelic at the same time is eye-opening.

And even if you don’t, they are a pair of very beautiful languages to get to know.


Geoglot Verb Blitz Apps

Speaking is like a skyscraper. Aim high, but watch your foundations too! Image by createsima on

Speaking without foundations (and putting it right)

As I sit at the station tapping away at Anki, I’m impressed at the level of the vocabulary I’ve reached: interactive, futurism, equality… All those lovely advanced words! I enjoy a moment of language learner pride, before I remember that when it comes to everyday speaking, I’ve still got a bit of work to do.

It’s a problem you might recognise yourself, if you’ve tried any of a number of accelerated learning techniques with your languages. For me, it was all about grappling with Icelandic in all its glory immediately. I leapt straight into the language a few years back, working with iTalki tutors in a conversational format and lapping up that wonderful vocab.

The pattern was this: prepare a topic to talk on, and chat about it in the lesson. Some of the themes were challenging even by first language measures: politics, social media, technology. But using an “islands” approach, it seemed to be working out really well. I absorbed and consolidated a huge amount of vocabulary and grammar structures.

Speaking high and dry

For sure, it is a learning strategy that builds a solid level of competency, and fast. It has made me quite adept at prepared chat, a wonderfully useful and transferable skill for other areas of life such as public speaking and work presentations. It’s a technique I still use, too. I recently completed the #30DaySpeakingChallenge in Icelandic, and created a short speech on often quite complex topics for every one of those days.

But it is a very particular type of competency, or fluency, that this technique builds.

The crunch comes when you come to speaking a language in the wild. For me, it became painfully clear on trips to Iceland than I almost completely lacked the basic, practical, and social foundations needed to operate on a day-to-day level in the foreign language. Navigating social situations – even producing the most basic of niceties and stock repsonses – felt like pulling teeth.

Yes, I could rattle on about materialism, propaganda and language learning techniques in wonderful Icelandic. But when it came to ordering a sandwich on Reykjavík’s Laugavegur, I was lost.

That’s great – but can you just order a coffee, please?

Swallow that pride!

The warning signs were there well in advance, of course. For instance, I would haplessly flounder after the social glue at the end of lessons. Phrases such as “have a nice week, see you soon!” got stuck in my mouth like treacle toffee. I could clumsily construct them based on grammatical rules and vocabulary. But they never sounded natural.

Now, there is no shame in recognising these lacks, however late. And this is certainly not to bash accelerated learning techniques – I still use and love them. We all learn in different ways, for different reasons. It was always a source of huge motivation to prepare speaking topics on the things I found most interesting.

But here’s the crucial lesson to take: it’s easy to assume that by learning the high-brow stuff, the everyday stuff follows automatically, almost like a side-effect. Sadly, it doesn’t quite work that way!

Two tiers

Instead, it helps to view language learning as a two-tier process. You can leap straight in with advanced topic-based speaking challenges for speed learning. But, at least alongside that, there needs to be a nod to the social reality (if, that is, you are learning the language to use in a social setting some day – not the case for everyone!).

Some of the best resources for this are perhaps those that budding hyperglots might tend to dismiss as too basic. In fact, foundational primers like Teach Yourself – especially those aimed at more casual learners, like the TY “Get Started” series – are gold for training in social speaking. Yes, they can be light on grammar and more obscure vocabulary. But you do that elsewhere because you love it and seek it out! For the stuff at ground level you are liable to skip, you could do a lot worse than go back to one of these courses.

Their strength is in building social muscle memory for the language. This is the more automatic level of trigger-response in language, operating generally below the level of full consciousness. It’s also how a lot of the social interaction in our first language occurs. Just consider how unthinkingly you fire off “no problem” or “you’re welcome” when somebody thanks you. There is close to zero cogitation going on around how to form a grammatically well-formed sentence!

To this end, I’ve returned to what you might call the ‘baby chapters’ of Teach Yourself Icelandic and Colloquial Icelandic. And it constantly surprises me how much of the little stuff I had missed.

The best thing? It’s never too late to go back and learn it.

Many routes to the same destination – walk them all

Admittedly, speaking without foundations is a human flaw baked into the informal, conversational lesson approach, since it is only natural to seek meaningful chat with tutors. But perhaps we can also find time to squeeze in some ‘real world’ modelled dialogues too, like ordering a coffee or checking in at a hotel.

The crux of it all is that there are many routes to that same destination of fluent speaking, none of them mutually exclusive. Treading several different paths gives you a much more rounded feel for the language than a single one.

Diving right into a language and speaking without foundations is an exhilarating and exciting way to learn. But check out your foundations now and again, too!

An owl - not the Duolingo one, but probably related. Image by Pamela Benn on

Approaching Duolingo : One Way to Catch An Owl

In case you hadn’t noticed, Duolingo released its Scottish Gaelic course early this week. And naturally, I leapt straight in like a pig in mud!

Like many, I had waited patiently and eagerly for this release, not least since I study Gaelic at evening classes in Edinburgh. Despite a resolution not to race ahead, Duolingo’s early Christmas present was a gift too good not to open straight away. As expected, it is a joy of bite-sized vocabulary snacks.

Devouring unit after unit, it struck me that there are many ways to systematically approach a resource like this. The question of how to tackle Duolingo also cropped up recently in discussion with excellent iTalki tutor Marcel, who is running a Duo-challenge WhatsApp group I’m part of. Personally, I prefer a two-wave method. I outline it here in the hope that it helps others who, at first glance, find a huge topic tree a bit overwhelming, and wonder how to tackle it.

The two-wave approach to Duolingo

This method has a lot in common with the forward-loading approach to course books, which is one of my favourite ways to tackle language learning material. It involves an initial, exploratory reccy through the material, combined with a systematic and focused follow-up.

The first wave

When you first open up that course, it is all about getting to know the terrain. Like hacking your way through undergrowth, you need to clear a path first.

Duolingo prevents users from accessing material out of order by locking lessons until the previous one is completed to the first of five XP levels. However, unlocking to this first, blue level is usually just a matter of a few short introductory lessons. So, in the first wave, you simply steam ahead, unlocking topic sections just to level one before opening up the next one. In no time at all, you’ll have blued up a good portion of your tree (or maybe even all of it with a shorter course like Gaelic).

Don’t worry too much about retention at this stage. The aim is to have fun, notice the shapes and sounds of the language, and lay down some passive pre-knowledge before we get serious. Above all, it is the no stress stage. Just explore and enjoy your new language!

The second wave

When you have unlocked a fair few topics, the second wave can begin!

At this stage of your Duolingo attack, you go right back to the very first topic section. Work through slowly and carefully, one by one, hammering each topic to level up fully to gold before moving on to the next.

Note that there is no speed pressure here. You can gold a topic up in a single sitting, or take days to do it. The important thing is that, during this more focused stage, you resist the temptation to move on before a topic is gold.

The second stage is where the deep learning occurs. But thanks to the familiarity you have from the first pass, you already have a ground layer to build on.

A snapshot of my progress through Duolingo Scottish Gaelic, showing how the two-wave approach works.

A golden wave works its way through Duolingo!

Own the vocabulary

Here is the crucial turbo-boost you can engage during the second wave: make the vocabulary your own. Duolingo shouldn’t simply be a passive resource. For long-term learning, you should record all those new words and phrases in your own, separate collection for drilling.

Anki is hard to beat on that score. Every time I meet a new item in the lessons, I look up a detailed definition using a resource like Wiktionary, and add it to an Anki deck. Since Anki will also drip-feed that vocabulary to you using its clever spaced repetition algorithm, you effectively double the learning power of the Duolingo course.

And that’s all there is to the two-wave approach. Familiarise first, study systematically, and make the material your own as you go. A simple but effective way to catch an owl!

How do you approach Duolingo courses? Do you use a different technique? And have you started Gaelic yourself? Let us know in the comments!

The Polish flag. Photo by Michal Zacharzewski from FreeImages

Five reasons the Polish language is so special

Polish can feel like a real challenge as a learner. I should know – I’ve been at it for a few years, and progress still comes in fits and starts!

But studying Polish is incredibly rewarding, thanks to its fascinating features. Here are five very special reasons to give this unique Slavic language a go.

Strange…  but familiar

Coming to a Slavic language as a newbie to the group can be daunting. The vocabulary and grammar can appear quite alien at first, with few hooks and similarities to other languages you might know. Of course, that is half the charm for many learners. But it does add a certain level of challenge!

However, thanks to its geographical placement, Polish has absorbed more than its fair share of borrowings from neighbouring languages that might be more familiar. For example, Polish has a very productive verb-forming suffix -ować, which produces an abundance of easy-to-guess words formed from Latin roots:

akceptować to accept
awansować to promote
pasować to fit, suit
oferować to offer
sugerować to suggest

Not only that, but the neighbouring German language has also made its presence felt. Some common borrowings that German speakers will recognise include:

dach roof (from Dach)
handel trade (from Handel)
kształt shape (from Gestalt)
malować to paint (from malen)
reszta the rest (from Rest)
urlop holiday (from Urlaub)

Incidentally, the influence goes both ways: Polish donated to German the words Gurke (cucumber – from ogórek) and Grenze (border – from granica).

Like English, Polish has absorbed so much from its long history of interaction with other languages, but still keeps its very distinctive flavour.

Harking to the past

Sometimes, though, familiarity can be a bit dull. Many Slavic languages, like Russian, simply use the familiar Latinate calendar names for the months. How boring, eh?

However, Polish preserves some of its pastoral past by retaining the ancient Slavic terms to demarcate the year. They may be trickier to remember at first, but they have a beauty and storytelling magic all of their own:

styczeń January (from stykać – to meet, where the old year meets the new)
luty February (from an Old Polish word meaning ‘fierce cold’)
marzec March (from marznąć – to freeze)
kwiecień April (related to kwiecie – flowers)
maj May (this one is actually a gift from the Romans, celebrating the goddess Maia)
czerwiec June (from the word czerw, a lava used to produce red pigment)
lipiec July (from lipa – a linden tree, which blossoms in this month)
sierpień August (from sierp – sickle, useful for harvest time!)
wrzesień September (from wrzosy – heather, with its purple bloom at this time of year)
październik October (from paździerz, part of a flax plant used for making fabric)
listopad November (literally ‘falling leaves’)
grudzień December (from gruda – hard ground during frosty times)

You really get two-for-one when you learn the months in Polish. Learners can pick up extra off-the-beaten-track vocabulary like sierp (sickle) along the way!

A dash of Gallic

One thing that surprises newcomers to Polish is its pair of fancy-sounding nasal vowels ą and ę. The sound ą is reminiscent of the -on in French bon, whereas the ę is almost like -em in Portuguese bem. This handy video gives some nice examples.

If you have studied other Slavic languages, these nasal sounds can seem quite unexpected. But the whole thing lends a real Gallic twang to the sound of Polish that adds more than a dash of sophistication to proceedings.

Long but logical

Polish also has its quota of satisfyingly long words to get your language learning chops around. These occur frequently with some conjugated verb forms, and especially in the conditional tense. Although they appear beastly at first, they do display an order and logic (honest!) when you drill down. That said, add in the presence of consonant clusters typical to the Polish alphabet, and they can seem like fiendish tongue twisters.

Here are a few:

krzyknęłybyśmy we (f.) would cry out
podróżowalibyście you (pl.m.) would travel (from podróżować)
potrzebowalibyśmy we (m.) would need (from potrzebować)

Conjugations like those provide the kind of mental gym that will keep your mind positively chugging over.

Jumping particles

And that leads us to the last, quite magical feature of Polish in our special list: mobile morphemes. It’s those devilish verb endings above again, the ones that help create such long words. Well, you’ll never guess – they can actually break away and join other parts of the sentence. And not necessarily verbs!

For instance, a vanilla form of the question ‘whom did you see?’ ( would be:

Kogo zobaczyliście?

However, that -ście can have a mind of its own. It may just as well decide to join the ‘whom’, giving us:

Kogoście zobaczyli?

Yes, that’s a verb ending on the end of a question word. The mind boggles. Polish is truly a fascinating creature!

(For those wanting the linguistic nitty gritty, these endings behave as detachable clitics in their own right.)

Starting your Polish adventure

Convinced by the magic of Polish? Fortunately, there are some easy routes into the language.

An excellent place to start is the Duolingo Polish course. Although not the most extensive course on the free language learning site, it is nonetheless a pretty solid and comprehensive introduction. The course is particularly handy for vocabulary building, but also covers lots of drills on fundamental grammar principles.

Appetite whetted by those long verb conjugations? Polish Verb Blitz by Geoglot is an inexpensive app available on iOS and Android which takes a reference-drill approach.

Polish Verb Blitz for iOS

Polish With John is a superb blog for learners featuring reading and listening content for various levels.  Disclaimer: the site is created by my indefatigable Polish tutor on iTalki. But I can quite dispassionately say that the listening material is excellent and incredibly helpful.

Book-based materials

In terms of more traditional book-based courses, both Teach Yourself Complete Polish and Routledge Colloquial Polish are worth a punt. Now, both publishing houses offer their listening material for free online (Teach Yourself at this link and Routledge Colloquial here), so you can even listen before you buy.

Routledge, to be fair, have always been a language geek’s dream. The Polish catalogue also includes a concise, essential grammar of Polish, as well as a much heftier comprehensive overview of the language. Now that’s some real language learning fodder for the hungry.

And have I mentioned before how much I love the new Tutor series from Teach Yourself? There’s a Polish version of that, too!

Finally, much older coursebooks can be forgotten gems worth unearthing. I started my Polish journey in earnest with a 50p copy of the original Teach Yourself Polish, first penned in 1948. Those old tomes have a relentlessly systematic approach to grammar that is sometimes missing in newer books.

Polish can be a challenging language to learn, but also a fascinating and rewarding one. Have you given it a whirl yet? What are your favourite features, words and quirks? Let us know in the comments!