Bingo could be good for your speaking, too! Image by Michiel Meulemans on FreeImages.com

Speaking Bingo Sheets for Snappy Active Vocab Recall

When it comes to making vocabulary stick in memory, there are few more effective methods than actively working new material in your speaking practice.

Regularly engaging with new words and phrases in a foreign language is constructive recycling. They gain a salience in the brain beyond words on a page, helping to cement solid neural pathways. Practical use is a sure-fire way to move new material from passive to active knowledge, which is one reason that the Active Recall memory method works so well.

But sometimes, it is not enough to simply hope they come up in conversation. We need a systematic approach to target new vocab.

Polyglot pals, I present to you: speaking bingo sheets!

Speaking bingo sheets

In essence, speaking bingo sheets are simply preparation notes for conversation lessons – with a twist. Instead of a static list of items, they are a dynamic grid of entries that you tick off as you use them. And, like real bingo, you can add in an element of reward (and punishment, if you like!).

To get started, take a 3×3 grid. In each box, add a word or phrase from your recent language learning work. A three-square grid for nine items in total is ample, as more can get unwieldy. My own use of them has evolved from longer checklists to these snappier grilles, and the tighter focus feels much more amenable.

Ideally, all the items should be in a related topic (as it’s easier to fit them into a single conversation then!). As you use them while speaking with your tutor, you tick them off. Simple!

A speaking bingo sheet for Icelandic displayed in Notability for iPad.

Speaking Bingo Sheets needn’t be on paper – here’s one of mine in Icelandic on Notability for iPad.

If you need a bit of extra motivation, you can add a checklist of achievements and rewards below the grid. Your prizes can be as simple or elaborate as you want. A single line? A choccie bar with your coffee. A full house? Allow yourself to buy  that language learning book you’ve been eyeing up for months. You can add punishments too, but just enough to engender a bit of self-discipline. Be kind to yourself – the last thing you need is extra stress in something that should be a joy!

Your teacher can be in on the plan, if you like. But equally, bingo can be for your eyes only. And they’ll be left wondering just why you are so focused in your speaking today!

No lessons? No problem!

I use speaking bingo as part of my regular one-to-one conversation lessons with iTalki tutors. However, they lend themselves to all sorts of other learning situations, too.

If you are practising in situ on holiday, for example, you can set yourself a daily ‘speak sheet’ – nine things that you must try to say to native speakers. They can be as prosaic (“can I have a serviette, please?”) or as whacky (“do you know where I can buy a llama?”) as you like (or are brave enough to say). Unleashing your speaking game in the wild can not only be a bit of silly fun, but also great for building social confidence.

Even if you are nowhere special, with no native speakers within harassing distance, all is not lost. We learn a lot by teaching – or simply explaining – to others. In this case, simply make it your goal to explain each one of those grid items (meaning, pronunciation, etymology etc.) to nine different friends and family members.

However you do it, there is always a way to recycle, recycle, recycle, and move those words from passive to active memory.

Adapting for the classroom

Finally, there are also numerous variations of this you could try with a class of students. At an introductory level, each student could prepare a grid of questions like “what’s your name?“, “how old are you?” and so on. Then, with five minutes to mingle, their objective would be to ask – and record the answer – of every item on their grid. Prizes for a full house!

Structure and flexibility

Speaking bingo sheets are a great framework for using vocabulary and making it stick. They are flexible, in that you can create them from whatever material you choose. But they are also structured, lending some scaffolding to the otherwise very free realm of conversation.

Experiment, adapt and give them a go. And let us know how you get on in the comments!

 

How many languages should we learn at once? How many pieces of the jigsaw do you need? Image by Gary Fleischer on freeimages.com.

How Many Languages Should You Learn At Once? [Spoiler: it’s up to you!]

Every so often there is a ripple in the polyglot ocean, and that old, bebarnacled behemoth “how many languages should you learn at once?” rises to the surface again. A couple of social media posts on that perennial debate caught my eye recently, with passionate punters in both camps.

The conundrum is this: do we concentrate on a single language project at a time, maximising our efforts to progress more quickly and efficiently? Or do we indulge our love of languages, learning several at a time, aiming for the same goals but over a longer period of time?

Spoiler: there is no single, right answer to that question, however much the pundits claim!

Guilt-busting

The accepted wisdom currently seems to have swung in favour of “resist the temptation” when it comes to multiple languages. Narrow focus is the key to success. Now, I must admit to a pang of guilt every time I hear this nugget. As much as many, many of my polyglot friends, I am guilty of full-on Aladdin’s Cave mode. I am a veritable magpie with shiny new languages. If I really want to reach fluency quickly, so the recommendation goes, then I should probably drop a few for now.

Although concrete advice like this errs on the prescriptive side, it does mean well. And as a guideline for the goal-oriented learner, it is sound, too. If your language journey has a very well-defined, practical purpose, such as preparing to live in another country, or pass an exam, it is certainly the safe path to travel.

But are utility and economy of time really the alpha and omega of language learning for pleasure?

The explorer approach

The danger of prescriptive advice is that it selects a single path out of many – black or white, right or wrong. It is exclusive. Specifically, it sets up the end result as the only meaningful objective.

The reality of language learning is much more nuanced. The point for many of us is in the process, as well as the result.

Does a multilanguage process slow down progress compared to a one-at-a-time approach? In terms of pure mileage covered, it stands to reason, yes. But in other ways, not so much. It depends on what you are measuring the progress of. Chiefly, learning multiple tongues simultaneously takes some beating as a big picture approach to developing a deep understanding of language.

I like to view all my language projects as part of this much larger whole. What I learn in one helps carry the others along, too. Most obviously, this yields dividends when studying quite closely related languages, such as German, Icelandic and Norwegian. In this case, it is less about how many languages you learn, and more about which ones. Learning within this group helps to develop a keen instinct for the shared history, shape and feel of Germanic languages.

But even zooming out to more distant leaves on the tree, we can deepen our understanding of language at another level of abstraction. You develop a feel for what language, in a much more general sense, is trying to do, how humans perform communication. In particular, you start to see recurring patterns in how information is coded across very disparate groups.

What is a subject, and how is it given precedence in the sentence? How does language encode time and space, and what commonalities are there between far-flung groups? How are individuals and collectives represented in different ways by different languages?

All these question relate to how human beings package up and present information to carry out specific social functions. Studying a plethora, rather than just one at a time, opens the eyes of learners to the human jungle in glorious technicolour.


Incidentally, the ‘big picture’ argument for polyglot learning has a lot in common with the ideal of the polymath ‘all-rounder’.

Incremental and cumulative

Perhaps, too, we are asking the wrong question when making a choice between quick and slow learning. The most generally applicable piece of advice is simply this: make your learning incremental and cumulative, whatever the speed. Just keep building. And fast is not always fantastic.

This more ambling, strolling path to fluency reminds me of Dawkin’s explanation for the slow evolutionary development of eyes. As he explains, the eye did not simply flash into existence, fully formed. Instead, it evolved over aeons, from an initial small cluster of photosensitive cells on an early life-form, to the complex organ we see in so many incarnations today. At each stage, what was to become the eye was still useful and functional, even though it lacked the finesse of its current form.

Slow language learning is the same. Even if it takes longer to reach high-functioning fluency, the interim skills are nonetheless useful at every step. Just like evolution, language progress is incremental and cumulative, at whatever speed you take it.

A joy, not a chore

We should also remember what brings us to languages in the first place: the sheer joy of it. Too much rigidity can take the edge off any pleasure and turn it into a chore, and this is no exception. Of course, regularity and habit are crucial to ensuring progress. But we should be careful not to deny the place of flexibility in our passion, too.

For instance, I completed my first 30 Day Language Challenge in October. I tackled that one in Polish, and am now into November’s event using Icelandic as my challenge language. The daily speaking topics give me some structure and focus, but I maintain the freedom to use a different language in each challenge.

That’s a great compromise for me and fellow shiny-object fiends. We all have times when we are drawn more to one language than another, and that is absolutely fine. Basing our routines around short, sharp, fixed-term projects like the 30-Day Challenge gives us the best of both worlds: variety and structure.

What’s more, there is nothing to stop you switching modes with the ebb and flow of your own life. Sometimes an exam or a foreign trip will require a change in gear. Stay flexible; what is right for you now may not be in a month’s time.

How many languages? You decide.

I personally strive not to view my learning as a race against time. Nor as a sprint, or even a jog. I prefer it to be a glide, giving me the leisure to take in as much of the view as possible.

But this is not a personal manifesto. What works for me may well not work for you. But it is a friendly nudge to listen to what you want, rather than worry about the many shoulds and shouldn’ts whooshing past us on social media.

Joy should never be prescriptive. Although the booming edict ‘Learn But One Language At A Time’ is well-meant advice, the peer pressure it carries, coming from the mouths of experts, is powerful. One size never fits all. We are a rainbow of different circumstances. Consider at your leisure and select the answer that suits you.

TTS can lend your learning some robotic voice magic. Image by Oliver Brandt on FreeImages.com

Disembodied Voices : Using TTS as a Native Speaker Boost

Native speaker modelling is a prerequisite for learning to speak Modern Foreign Languages. But when listening materials are scarce, or you struggle to find exactly the material you want to learn, then text-to-speech (TTS) can lend a helping hand.

Text-to-speech : native speakers out of thin air

TTS, or speech synthesis, has come on in leaps and bounds since the early days of tinny Speak ‘n’ Spell voices. At first mimicking chiefly (American) English, many projects have since diversified to conjure native speaker voices in many languages out of thin air. Polyglot TTS technologies such as Google Cloud’s offering are at the edge of machine learning developments, and sounding more and more human all the time.

Using these disembodied tongues for language learning is nothing new, of course. Switching the language of your digital voice assistant has become a pretty well-known polyglot trick for some robotic speaking practice. Siri has been speaking fluent Bokmål on my phone for a while now. As a result, I’ve become a dab hand at asking what the weather will be like in Norwegian!

TTS Toolkit

But as handy as voice assistants are, you can leverage the power of TTS much more directly than tapping into Siri or Alexa. At its most basic level, plain old TTS is brilliantly useful for hearing a spoken representation of a word or phrase you are unsure of.

For example, if you are tired of guessing how to reel off “das wäre sehr schön” in German (that would be very nice), never fear. Simply paste it into Google Translate and hit the speaker icon. The platform already offers and impressive number of languages with speech support.

Google Translate offers TTS features.

Google Translate offers TTS features – simply type / paste in your target language and click the speaker icon.

But it gets even better. Several other resources allow you to do more than just listen; they offer a download function too. This way, you can keep your most useful speech synthesis files and incorporate them into your own materials. Combined with vocabulary mining tools such as mass-sentence site Tatoeba, you can begin to curate large, offline collections of target language material with text and audio.

One notable and powerful multilingual voice synthesis site is TTSMP3.com. For a start, it offers plenty of language options. On top of that, several languages include a choice of voices, too.  More than enough to sate your curiosity when you wonder “How do you say that?”.

With a little Google digging, you may also find specialist TTS projects devoted to your particular language of study. For instance, Irish learners are spoilt by the Abair website (Abair means ‘say’ in Irish). Not only does it provide downloadable Irish narration, but it does this in a choice of three different regional accents. If you learn Irish too, you will well know what a godsend this is!

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Irish TTS in a range of regional dialects on the Abair website.

Incorporating TTS MP3s

With your MP3s downloaded, you can now incorporate them into your own resources. Easiest of all is simply to insert them as media in PowerPoint presentations or Word documents. I personally like to add them manually to Anki cards to add audio support when I revise vocabulary.

The quick and easy way to reach Anki’s media folder on the desktop program is to open up the Preferences panel, then the Backups tab, and finally to tap the “Open backup folder” link that appears. In the same location as that backup directory, you should see another folder with the name collection.media. Anything you put in here will be synced along with the rest of your Anki data.

Note: always back up your Anki decks before tinkering in the program folders!

Anki's media folder

Anki’s media folder

Drop your saved TTS files into this folder. Note that subfolders still don’t seem to work reliably, so keep everything in that single folder. Logical file naming will definitely help!

Finally, when you create / edit a vocabulary note, use the following format to add your sound as a playable item, replacing filename as appropriate:

[sound:filename.mp3]

When viewed on your device, you should see a play button on flashcards with embedded sounds. Magic!

Anki card with embedded sound

An Anki card with embedded sound

If you prefer an even easier route, then there is an Anki plugin specially created for automatically including TTS into notes. I prefer the manual method, as it satisfies the the tech control freak in me.

A human touch

Of course, TTS is not a perfect substitute for a native speaker recording. For those times when only a human voice will do, Forvo is a goldmine. The site is replete with native sounds across a dizzying array of languages, all recorded by native speaker volunteers. Just as with the TTS examples above, the sounds can be downloaded for use in your own resources, too.

To round off our trek through native speaker sites – real and synthesised – just a final note on copyright. If you intend to share the resources you create, always check the usage notes of the website of origin. Sites commonly have fair use policies for non-commercial projects, so making resources for personal use is usually not a problem at all. If you plan to sell your resources, though, you may well need to opt for a commercial plan with the respective platform.

Robotic resources can plug a real gap in native speaker support, especially for niche languages, or niche subjects in more mainstream ones. Do you use TTS in innovative ways in your own learning? Have you come across other specialist or language-specific TTS projects? If so, please share in the comments!

You can still be accountable even as a lone ranger. Photo by Mario Alberto Magallanes Trejo on FreeImages.com.

Staying Accountable as a Lone Language Learner

How do you stay accountable in your solo language learning?

I know I sometimes find it difficult as an individual learner. It’s an important consideration for anyone studying on their own. But there’s a clue: one answer is to aim for less of the on your own and instead, build elements of community into the approach to study. And that’s something that was thrown into sharp relief for me recently, as I took part in the 30-Day Speaking Challenge for the very first time.

Accountable together

The challenge has been around for a while now, but I’d managed to find one reason after another to put it off. I finally bit the bullet this month, and discovered a cheery, well-oiled machine well into its paces as a regular event. Run by online teacher and fellow polyglot Jonathan Huggins, the challenge brings together daily speaking tasks with straightforward, big-hearted peer support through shared Google Docs. Simple, but motivating. I’m not sure what kept me away for so long!

The particularly wonderful thing about the challenge is the way every participant helps keep everybody else on track. You not only record, but you listen to the recordings of others learning your native language, and chip in your native knowledge where you can. It creates a huge positive vibe of mutual support, and it seems like the completion rate for daily recordings is very high. That’s undoubtedly almost entirely due to the warm buzz from peer feedback and encouragement.

Learners maintain their daily recordings in order to remain an active part of this mutual motivation club.

I’m currently two thirds of the way through October’s challenge, which I’m tackling in Polish. Some of the daily topics can be tough, but I keep coming back for more every day. It has me convinced – so much so that I’ve already signed up to do the November challenge in Icelandic!

So why has the challenge been so effective for me and others?

Social checkboxes

With language learning, I’ve long been a fan of regularity and routine. Creating a regime to follow gives scaffolding to your overarching goals, and brilliant productivity tools like Evernote help manage these daily tactics precisely with checklists and plans.

Adding a social layer to this self-management brings something a bit special to these regimes. In essence, your checklists receive a potent, people-powered turbo-boost. Suddenly, it’s not just you. It’s a whole bunch of other people you want to run with and not let down.

Staying accountable means making sure that there is someone – besides you – to give reason to your checkboxes.

Keeping it fresh

It goes beyond that a simple motivational boost, too. Letting other human beings into your learning opens you up to a whole other realm of ideas and techniques. This aspect of socialised learning ticks a crucial box: part of staying accountable to yourself as a learner includes keeping up-to-date with new or different resources.

For instance, during this current challenge I found out about the very useful SpeakPipe site. SpeakPipe offers a web-based voice recording app, which saves recordings for a month and provides a URL for you to share them with others. It’s instant, works on pretty much any device, and takes the fuss out of making a quick recording.

But what is even handier is the function to download those files to keep offline forever. Using it on the challenge has resulted in a little bank of MP3 files I can use as both a record of my progress in Polish, and as revision materials for the topics I speak about.

Staying accountable by downloading your daily recordings on Speakpipe.

Speakpipe allows you to download your recordings as MP3s to keep forever.

There is also a sneaky side-benefit to these short daily recordings. They play perfectly into the language islands technique beloved of famed linguistic impresario Luca Lampariello. In this approach, islands are rehearsed snippets of target language that you have available for instant insertion into conversation. It’s a quick fluency tip that works well, and by the end of October, I’ll have ended up with thirty little Polish islands of my own!

Accountability everywhere

I’ve discussed staying accountable in the context of the 30-Day Speaking Challenge here. But social accountability is on tap in plenty of other places besides this excellent cheerleader for peer encouragement. You can satiate your need for positive feedback by keeping up regular iTalki lessons, for example, or attending a language café.

Additionally, there are myriad other community-based mini-challenges that run regularly and are worth checking out. Some are language-based, like LanguageJam, whereas others are not specific to language learners, but can be adapted to foreign language practice, like NaNoWriMo.

And of course, there is no warmer home for polyglots than the thriving polyglot Twitter community. Share, encourage others and thrive – even as a lone ranger!

Where there are fellow learners, there are friends to keep you on track. Seek them out.

Creating language learning resources with a bit of translation magic!

In a rut with resources? Create, create, create!

Do you ever tire of using the same old resources again and again? Or maybe you just can’t seem to hit upon exactly the right resources to switch you on.

Maybe all you need is a bit of DIY.

I was feeling the drag with Duolingo of late. As much as I love the onerous owl, it was all getting a little repetitive. The addictive pressure of leagues added to the more-of-the-same platform fatigue. Not wanting to go cold turkey (I still find it a wonderful way to learn and practise), I scaled back a little.

Predictably, the move left an owl-sized hole in my heart at first. Yes! I even missed that frenzied, everyday point-piling practice. But most of all, I missed Duolingo’s translation method of learning, something that really works for me.

Waiting for the owl…

So I started wondering how I could bring some of that same magic to my learning in different ways – and maybe even extend it to my languages without a Duolingo offering yet, like Icelandic and Gaelic. “Waiting for Duolingo” has become something of a phenomenon amongst the language learning community, summed up in one spot-on tweet I came across recently:

https://twitter.com/ohnonero/status/1181996626094825472?s=20

Admittedly, I can see both sides of the argument here. One the one hand, there is a wealth of learning materials available. It certainly does seem a limiting shame to focus on a single one.

But on the flip side, a lot of people get a lot of joy and benefit from the ease of the Duolingo format.

The solution? Recreate those methods that work best for you, but in your own resources!

Method in the madness

First of all, I should explain what it is I like so much about the Duolingo method. There is actually something very traditional about the way the platform presents and drills foreign language material. In fact, it has a lot in common with the traditional exposition-practice method of old. Typically, this approach presents a set of model sentences as examples, then uses translation exercises – from and into the target language – to help students internalise them.

This method fell out of favour in language pedagogy for a number of years. You can understand why: it is challenging. It is hard to keep students switched on during a marathon of what amounts to a linguistic mental gym. This kind of learn-by-constant-modelling flies the flag for the old chalk ‘n’ talk of old-fashioned classrooms, while more communicative methods promised to get kids speaking sooner. However, as Duolingo shows, there is a place for both.

Digging for gold

Now, one of my favourite things is digging out forgotten old language learning materials. Look beyond the sometimes quaintly dated content, and the constructions and grammatical models are just as relevant to today’s students. The original tranche of Teach Yourself books, for instance, can be language learning gems that need just the lightest dusting off to be enlisted into the action again.

Teach Yourself Maltese (1965)

A 1980s reprint of Teach Yourself Maltese (1965) from my eccentric collection of language books.

These long-lost books completely fit that old exposition-practice mould. But even better, they are cheap! You can pick up copies from second-hand booksellers online for mere pence. And many old, out-of-print volumes are available as scanned PDFs if you look hard enough online (like this reworked, archived copy of Teach Yourself Irish).

And because of the similarity of approach between this and Duolingo’s method, I started thinking: could I turn this material into something similar?

A resource is born

A couple of weekends of code-tapping later, and it started to emerge: the Polyglossic Text Machine! Or Sentence Driller. I can’t decide which yet (and as it is chiefly for my own use, it doesn’t really matter!)

I compile lists of model sentences from my ancient books, and the program turns them into interactive translation exercises. I love it; I am burning through material, just like I pecked through all those sentences the green owl prepared for us. And those structures are sticking.

Creating resources to drill foreign languages based on ancient translation exercises!

Creating resources to drill foreign languages based on ancient translation exercises!

The project is put together in a programming language called Haxe, which compiles to HTML5 for deployment on the web. Haxe is actually quite easy to get into, and at some point, I would love to do a tutorial series on using it to make language games. Please get in touch or comment if this is something you would find useful!

No programming required!

That said, I realise my luck in already having the skills to do this from the ground up. It is completely a geek’s game; not everybody has the time or interest to develop electronic resources from scratch.

But it needn’t be so fancy – there are lots of free tools around that replicate this kind of drilling game without programming skills. If you have sourced some material you think will make brilliant drill fodder, try feeding them into build-your-own-activity resources like the following:

Custom resources are not simply about getting exactly the kind of resource you want. The huge added benefits include ownership and familiarity. By researching and creating them, you make your first pass of the material. When you come to the actual learning and practising, you are already one step ahead!

Finally, my focus above has been completely digital. But creating and learning buddy up across any media. For example, do you learn well through storytelling? Then take a look at this study, which showed how creative storytelling noticeably improved active foreign language production. And for further reading on the topic of creation and learning, this lovely article offers several ideas.

Don’t wait for the perfect resources to come along. Take inspiration from the things you like best, and create your own!

A lecture hall - which learning styles reign here? Photo by Gokhan Okur on FreeImages

A Tale of Two Learning Styles : Accelerated Input vs. Restraint and Repetition

Learning styles are like fine wines – there’s one for every taste, occasion or whim. And this week, I had the chance to return to a mode and pace that enthusiastic, independent learners sometimes miss out on.

On Wednesday, I started Scottish Gaelic classes at the University of Edinburgh. Gaelic is one of Scotland’s three official languages, and an introduction was long overdue (although I’ve picked up plenty of Doric!). Judging by the first class, it will be a really fun and rewarding experience. But as a language enthusiast, learning with others represented a gear-shift to a different pace, too.

Instead of the familiar, accelerated pace of lone language cramming, it was the measured, slow-but-sure approach of learning in a large class.

House rules

Now, I deliberately avoided learning any Gaelic beforehand, as I believe it is important to have the shared experience of learning with my classmates. And a second rule: I will also resist any extracurricular extras in Gaelic, to make sure I follow the plan. (Not wanting to look like a swot may also lie partly behind these decisions!)

But changing gear shed some light on the great benefits of a more restrained, gradual, cumulative learning approach. And we can replicate those benefits as lone learners outside the classroom, too.

Language learning, fast and slow

If you are a language learning enthusiast, you are probably well acquainted with what we might call the ‘classic polyglot mode‘. Course books, target language media and authentic texts are joyful things to soak up, to savour, to devour. It really is a kind of accelerated input method as we race through, learning at breakneck speed.

Now, this is an absolutely valid method (and the one I find myself most naturally slipping into as a perennial dabbler). What’s more, accelerated learning has strong evidence to back it up as an effective choice in a jungle of learning styles and approaches. For instance, in one study of maths students, subjects performed better on tests after an intensive course, as opposed to a longer pathway. Meanwhile, extreme learners like Tim Ferriss have almost turned rapid language learning into a sport.

Learning fast can be fun, exhilarating and yield great results under the right conditions.

Turning down the temperature

The other method is probably the one most familiar to us from our school days. Mixed ability groups work through carefully planned material, week by week. Here, the teacher controls the pace. Due to the mixed abilities within a large group, it can be a more pedestrian approach, to be sure. Characteristically, it features repeated exposure to a small set of material at a time.

Here, the key advantages are expert modelling by the teacher, and heavily repeated input.

Compared to accelerated, individual learning styles, the restrained, intensely focused classroom situation gives learners ample time to perfect a skill before moving on. In this semi-immersive environment, especially if the teacher uses a lot of target language, exposure to learning material is very high.

Conversely, as rapid crammers, the repeat-practise-learn cycle is reversed. When we move through a language quickly, we agree a sort of contract with ourselves, promising to drill the material in situ, on location, when we ultimately throw ourselves into a target language environment. In the classroom, it is practise, practise, practise before we consider it learnt.

To make a building analogy, accelerated learning builds high, and reinforces later. The traditional classroom secures each storey to the max before moving on.

The benefits of repetitive modelling

As eager as we might be to dial up the speed, there is plenty of research supporting the effectiveness of prolonged, repeated modelling. For example, using neuroimaging techniques, it is possible to see mental pathways strengthening through repetitive work, as this study demonstrates. Repetition “induces neuroplasticity” – it actually changes your brain.

Functionally, that means that new skills stick. This EFL classroom study notes that students “benefited from the opportunity to recycle communicative content as they repeated complex tasks“.

Additionally, there are further advantageous effects replicating the sentence modelling of mass sentence techniques. Children in this classroom study actively produced particular sentence structures more readily after repetitive exposure. This “sentence frame” effect gradually builds a library of mental models a speaker can confidently draw upon at a snap.

Common sense, perhaps. But a reminder that language learning is a marathon, not a sprint.

Building slow learning into your fast routine

Of course, there is no need to wind down all of your learning to a snail’s pace, or put a brake on the things you love. But there are ways to introduce a little slow into your routine. Slow learning does have a nice ring to it, admittedly. A little like slow food, it is all about considering the object of interest as something wholesome, worth taking time over.

So here are a few ideas for grafting this ethos onto your more usual accelerated route.

Focused speaking

If you have regular conversation sessions with a tutor on iTalki, try selecting a very narrow topic for just a part of that lesson. Use a mind-mapping technique like the brain dump to  collate a pool of vocabulary, and talk, talk, talk it out with your tutor for 5-10 minutes.

For added effect, arrange with your tutor to return to the same topic over the course of consecutive sessions. Discounting boredom, you should become really good at speaking about it whenever the occasion arises!

Peer teaching / sharing

Teaching others is a wonderful way to recycle and revise material, not least because it also slows you down and allows you to repeat familiar material out loud. ‘Teaching’ need not mean anything formal – simply sharing your latest words and phrases with (hopefully, vaguely interested) family or friends will do.

Setting your pace

Alternatively, you can take your foot off the pedal by carefully planning your learning with productivity tools like Evernote or Wunderlist. If you feel you are rushing through a course book too quickly, devise a learning plan that allocates a whole week (or more) to a single chapter. And, importantly: don’t deviate. I find calendarised plans and tick lists some of the simplest but most effective tools for pacing my learning.

Recycling beginners’ resources

Finally, spare a thought for your old, forgotten resources. Revisit them regularly, and revel in your improving abilities. You probably know the material so well now that you can do the exercises in your sleep!

Learning styles : a best of both worlds approach

Becoming a classroom student again taught me the common sense I had long forgotten: the more you practise, the better you get. Never fear, you can of course still steam through your languages at a rate of knots. Gradual and fast ‘n’ furious learning styles are not mutually exclusive. And there is no greater joy for the polyglot than consuming courses!

But, now and again, give your brain the time to form new pathways through good old repetition and rote.

It is built to do so.

Meta-learning - know your brain (Image from freeimages.com)

How polyglot brains handle cross-language interference

Paranoid polyglots beware. After years of brushing off comments like “don’t you ever get mixed up with all those languages?“, it happened to me recently: I noticed a significant interference from one language to another.

The pernicious pair of languages comprised German, my longest and strongest project, and the not-too-distantly related Norwegian, which I started much later, but also speak reasonably well. The culprit? The word for vegetarian. After years of being perfectly aware that the German translation is “der Vegetarier“, I found myself starting to say “der Vegetarianer” instead. Norwegian shuffles and looks sheepishly at its feet in the corner; the norsk equivalent is “vegetarianer“. Guilty!

Since adding Norwegian to my languages, it seemed I had also added an extra syllable to a German word, too.

This kind of interference is especially common with close sibling and cousin languages. For example, difference can arise when close languages borrow words differently, ending up with mismatched genders for cognates as in this example. Similarly, when I first attempted to speak Polish, the interference from my similarly Slavic Russian was inescapable.

Evidently, polyglots are regularly learning material that lends itself to cross-confusion and interference. But we often worry about it, or characterise it as some kind of failure of method, when there is good reason not to.

Bilingual brains

Firstly, interference is a wholly normal feature of using more than one language regularly. Research into bilinguals reveals that even two native languages are not immune from interference.

But more importantly, cognitive linguists studying bilingual subjects have illuminated some of the brain processes that monitor and catch such slip-ups, and, crucially, learn from them. Now, polyglot language learners are not quite analogue with bilinguals. But these conclusions go some way to explaining processes that affect us all, and more practically, reassure the paranoid polyglot.

Our inner sentinel

The key topic of interest in cognitive psychology here is conflict monitoring theory. This approach to understanding thought probes what happens in the brain when errors creep into our conscious stream. One particular structure, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), appears to be our inner sentinel, monitoring activity and sounding the alarm when “competing representations” come into focus.

Interference is monitored by the anterior cingulate cortex.

The location of the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain. Image via Wikipedia.

Note that it is our own brains doing the detection. We know, on some level, that we have made a mistake. That in itself should be sweet reassurance to the worried learner. Our brains are simply not constructed to rattle off mistakes without recourse to self-correction. If you are familiar with the material, interference will always ring bells.

However, the anterior cingulate cortex appears to do its work beneath the level of conscious control. We are not even aware of it, save for the mental jolt we get when we realise something was amiss. That neatly explains that familiar niggling feeling when something questionable leaves our mouths!

Intuiting interference – some strategies

In fact, the research goes beyond plain reassurance. One study of bilinguals concluded that regular language switching will increase error detection. That will be music to the ears of polyglots pondering the sense of studying more than one language at once. It suggests a strategy for success: cycling through your languages regularly, rather than focusing on one at a time. This chop-and-change approach may help keep your ACC sentinel fired up to ambush errors.

Some platforms such as Duolingo are perfect for switching to and fro between active languages like this. It was using this very resource that I noticed my own Vegetarier-vegetarianer interference slip above. The site’s multichoice flavour of questioning in particular is a great way to flex the brain in terms of conflict monitoring and error correction. Faced with one correct response and two – often subtly – incorrect ones (often cheekily bearing a resemblance to another red herring language), those mental circuits receive a proper taxing.

Finally, let’s not forget regular speaking practice using online services like iTalki, too. Once, I would fret at the potential confusion from practising three or four different languages in a week. As it turns out, that could be just what we all need.

And those pesky Russian interferences in my Polish? Well, after a bunch of lessons, and a fair bit of forehead-slapping and self-chastising, they have thankfully vanished. Like my interference errors, yours will struggle to escape the watchful eye of your anterior cingulate cortex in the end, too.

The take-home message? Don’t fret too much about interference, and revel in your multiple languages. Your anterior cingulate cortex has your back!

 

A bunch of Norwegian banknotes - what opportunity can you imagine springing from these? Image from freeimages.com

Polyglot Superpowers : Turning Calamity into Opportunity

Foreign languages are superpowers. A bold claim? Well, just think about it: they allow you to perform impressive feats that others cannot. Polyglot people can leverage their skills to open doors, get things done, create opportunities and build bridges, amongst many other things.

Still not convinced by the superpower label? Think of it this way. Just like superpowers, those without foreign language skills actually wish for it as a skill. “Learning Spanish”, for example, featured recently in a top ten ‘most desired’ skill list according to Skillup.

Powerful, elusive and desired: language skills are definitely super.

So what feats can we achieve with foreign languages? Mulling this over brought to mind a personal holiday headache where languages saved the day (and a fair bit of cash)…

Funny money

Being a lover of norsk, I try to travel to Norway as often as possible to practise. As a result, I tend to have a few Norwegian coins and notes lying around the house. No great fortunes, of course – I should be so lucky! Usually, it’s just a few NOK here and a couple of NOK there. But just before I left on this particular trip, I made a lucky find: three crisp, forgotten 200 NOK notes in a drawer. Nearly £60 I’d forgotten about. What a stroke of luck!

That is, until I got to Norway and tried use one to pay for my calzone in Deli de Luca. (Please don’t judge me – it’s one of the cheapest ways to eat as a visitor to Norway on a non-Norwegian wage!) Expecting a smooth, easy transaction – level A1 stuff at best – I was met with a stern look and a “det gjelder ikke lenger” (that’s no longer valid). Yes, unbeknownst to me, Norges Bank had withdrawn billions of NOK’s worth of money since I exchanged those forgotten notes at the Post Office. Oops.

Treasure hunt

Miffed at the thought of wasted money, the usual reservedness fell away. I had to find out what was going on.

Now, when you really want to know something, it’s astonishing how quickly and easily the words flow. And, through a bit of agitated questioning, I learnt from my Deli de Luca operative that all was not lost. There was still just one single bank in Oslo where I could exchange the old notes for new.

When you really want to know something, it’s astonishing how quickly and easily the words flow.

The treasure hunt was on, and it was an Odyssey of words. Using my best Bokmål on the staff at my hotel, I first figured out how to get to the bank. Being on the opposite side of town (typical!), I had to crack out my very best phrasebook language in order to navigate across the breadth of the city. Then, at the austere-looking bank offices, I explained my way past the security guard, and then on to the elderly teller, bemused by the story of the money I almost left past its sell-by date.

Finally – mission accomplished! I walked away with three brand new, reissued 200 kroner notes. Only as the determination gave way to relief did I realise how much Norwegian I’d spoken along the adventure.

And to think that I’d started this journey feeling nervous about asking for a calzone!

Polyglot power-up opportunities

Hey presto. A bit of language magic turned a handful of worthless paper into enough cash for a (rather small) Norwegian meal. Now, could I have navigated this calamity using English? Most likely, since there is wide knowledge of English in Norway.

But would I have learnt anything? Not a fraction. As it was, I felt the polyglot superpower grow just a little bit stronger for it. And I am certain that the whole process was smoother for the smiles and nods at a foreign visitor making the effort to speak the language. It can really bring out the best in people, disarming them and eliciting warmth and kindness. Speak, gesture, explain, but above all, communicate to get the help you need.

You can apply your foreign language magic to most holiday headache situations, and watch the shoots grow. And, as I found, there is little greater motivation to speak than the need to sort out personal issues. (Money, food and drink are all very effective, in my experience!)

In the path of danger?

Obviously nobody wants to go out actively seeking disaster. But there are ways to put yourself in the path of danger, so to speak, in safe and controlled ways.

Set up situations where you need to speak the language to get along

For one thing, you can actively set up situations where you need to speak the language to get along. Try booking self-catering accommodation, for example.  The basic need for food will force you out to practise those supermarket conversations. Or even better: make a point of going to smaller, local grocery shops for your ingredients. That’s a polyglot treasure hunt with a tasty reward at the end of it!

If you are something of a shy polyglot like me, then these motivational scenarios are excellent for bringing you out of your shell.

The magic of the everyday

That polyglot problem-solving power is a tool on your belt to handle any situation you might find yourself in on your travels. Of course, on the face of it, you might say that there is no magic here. This is just plain old resourcefulness, right?

Well, it cannot hurt to lend a little magical realism to an appraisal of your skills. Superpowers, like all skills and abilities, are means to an end, ways to get things done. Keep busting calamities in your billowing cape. And think of your language skills as superpowers with a bit of open sesame! magic. It’s a great way to create a sense of pride in them.

Is the starting point for functional fluency a list of the right core words? Photo by acscom from freeImages.com

300 Words for Functional Fluency : Miss Swanson’s Elucidating Experiment

Decrepit, dusty old language learning books from bygone days are a guilty pleasure of mine. And sometimes, the most obscure, long-forgotten tomes throw up some shining treasures. Leafing through one such volume this week week, I stumbled across a fascinating gem of a tip that promises a helpful shortcut to functional fluency in a language.

The book in question – George McLennan’s “Scots Gaelic – A Brief Introduction – is not one of the oldest I’ve taken a ramble through, seeing its first impression in 1987. But it contains a curious factoid that served as the basis for a whole chapter on essential vocabulary. Let’s join Mr McLennan, and dive into the strange and curious world of the mysterious Miss Elaine Swanson.

Elaine Swanson and the 300 words

Swanson, explains McLennan, was “director of the New York Language Institute” around the 1930s. Now, her existence may well be apocryphal, as I am yet to find any modern reference to her – or the New York Language Institute – online or otherwise. But this mythical Miss Swanson is noted for one particular and exciting theory. She posited that a spoken vocabulary of just 300 words will suffice to get by in a language.

Being a thoroughly practical kind of person, and seeking empirical proof, she took it upon herself to attempt this feat in English for the duration of a whole three months. Apart from undoubtedly bemusing and irritating friends, relatives and colleagues, this exercise allowed her to compile a list of those core 300 words that represent a level of functional fluency.

Thanks to McLennan’s unearthing of her story, we too can benefit from the fruits of that hard work.

Functional fluency list

Here, arranged by the parts of speech. Clearly, a huge nod goes in George McLennan’s direction for printing this list with Gaelic translations in his book. Otherwise, Miss Swanson’s experiment might have been lost forever.

The final list actually comes in at a little under 300 words. Bear in mind that not every language will match up with these English terms exactly, so it will need a little adapting for other languages. McLennan notes that Gaelic, for example, has no single word for no – instead, this is paraphrased.

And one more note before we begin: some categories and inclusions might seem a little eccentric or unusual. Remember that this list was made in and for a very certain place and a very certain time. It manages to be fairly general, but will need some personalisation!

Miss Elaine Swanson’s Core Vocabulary

Prepositions

at, after, for, from, in, on, to, with

Conjunctions

and, or, if, but, so, that

Pronouns

I, he/she, you

Possessives

my, your, their

Interjections

hello, goodbye, oh!

Articles

the

Nature

fire, light, sun

Business

I assume that Mr McLennan has changed the currency words here for a British audience.

bank, pound, penny, money, office, manager, show, size, shop, trouble, way

Travel

boat, car, country, hotel, left, place, right, station, street, ticket, town, train

Objects

bag, book, letter, telephone, thing, story, word, picture, nothing

Days of the Week

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Modifiers

The original list uses “modifiers” as a kind of catch-all for anything descriptive, making this a mixed bag!

again, all, any, big, clean, cold, correct, down, easy, every, expensive, good, happy, here, how?, little, long, many, more, married, much, new, nice, no, not, now, old, one, other, piece, ready, same, slow, some, sorry, that, there, this, too, also, up, warm, very, well, what?, when?, where?, who?, why?

Food

Miss Swanson could almost be the original author of Duolingo’s “Food” topics…

bread, butter, sweets, coffee, egg, fruit, meat, milk, salt, sugar, vegetables, water

Time

day, evening, hour, minute, month, morning, night, time, today, tonight, tomorrow, week, yesterday

House

bath, floor, house, key, room, table

People

boy, brother, doctor, father, friend, girl, man, men, Miss, mother, Mr, Mrs, name, policeman, sister, woman, women

Clothes

cloth, clothes, coat, dress, hat, shoes, stockings, trousers

Colours

black, blue, green, red, white

Were there no yellow things in Miss Swanson’s world?

Verbs (and auxiliaries)

will, won’t, ask, be (am, are, is, was, were), can/can’t/could, come/came, do/does/don’t/did, eat/ate, excuse, gain, get/got, give, go/went, have/has/had, help, know/knew, learn, like, make/made, must, please, put, read, say/said, see/saw, sent, sit/sat, sleep/slept, smoke, start, stop, take/took, thank, think/thought, understand/understood, use, want, work, write/wrote

A critical eye

Evaluating the list for its practicality, the omissions are often more noteworthy than the generally helpful inclusions. Indeed, I end up with more questions than answers. Why no we or they in the pronoun section, for example? One English word frequency list places we above both he and she, so this might seem like something that needs tweaking. And where is the handy it, which sits firmly in the top ten most common English words in the same frequency table?

If frequency word lists were available (presumably Miss Swanson would have had access to these as director of a linguistic institute), why did she not use these to compile a core vocabulary? That said, this was a personal experiment, and – it is fair to say – probably not exactingly scientific. The aim of fluency was on the terms of the author’s everyday, not a one-size-fits-all average person.

Elsewhere, some of the collapsed categories seem tailored quite specifically to English. We can only assume that the inclusion of possessive their is the gender-neutral one to cover he/she more economically with a single word.

Window on a world

A particularly fascinating characteristic of the list is the choice of present/past verb pairs. Only certain past tenses are included (knew, slept etc.), while others verbs are given only in the present / infinitive form. Presumably the choice relates to the kind of polite, daily conversations the protagonist was trying to replicate during the experiment. Again, this fits with a definition of fluency as a working knowledge of language for the protagonist’s everyday – not everyone else’s. On a related note, it might be quite shocking to note the inclusion of the verb ‘smoke’ these days. Of course, such observations are part of the charm of finding personal vocabulary lists like these: their quirkily subjective nature.

Other initial observations relate to the economy of some of the lower-frequency type of vocabulary. You might wonder, like I did, why some terms are included when they might be creatively paraphrased using other items on the list. Personally, I question why “sun” is there, when “big light”, accompanied by pointing at the sky, would do. Slightly paleolithic, admittedly. Miss Swanson sounds much more civilised than that.

Pidgin English

As a guide to speaking a language, the list is clearly missing something. In particular, her conception of vocabulary is of a set of discrete, individual blocks, without any comprehensive reference to the glue holding them together in speech. There are no grammar rules implied in this list method beyond the few verb tense pairs, a couple of declined verb forms (was, does etc.) and the probably unnecessary inclusion of the definite article.

You can get away without grammar, of course, in effect using the vocabulary with your own logic to create a kind of pidgin. Will that make for ‘good’ French, German, Spanish and so on? No, go the purists. But will it be communicative if you need a basic core fast? Absolutely!

Verbs for lift-off

Miss Swanson does give a nod to a certain kind of sentence glue, however. One of the most striking things about this core vocabulary is the preponderance of verbs. They make up a considerable portion of the magic 300. And with good reason: this super-category of words does a colossal amount of heavy lifting in terms of intention and meaning in a sentence.

Now, I’ve always championed the verb as a key fluency factor. In fact, you can just call me the Verb Guy, since I can’t get enough of them (I write apps to drill them in my spare time!). Miss Swanson clearly spotted the communicative power of verbs, and focusing on verb tricks like employing modal sentence frames can really boost your conversational power, too.

A pinch of salt (and a spoonful of sugar)

So there you have it: a recipe for getting by on just a handful of words. Serve with a dollop of gloriously eccentric sugar and a medium-sized pinch of salt.

But even if the Magic 300 needs some tweaking to our individual circumstances, it strikes me that Miss Swanson was most definitely onto something. Her approach lights a pathway towards communicating – fast – in any language. Beyond that, the highly personal, practical nature of her list makes for a charming and intriguing window onto the world of someone in love with language and words. There is something  very familiar about Miss Swanson that is reflected in all of us linguaphiles.

This long-forgotten experiment attracts the extreme linguist in me, I must admit. If functional fluency can be acquired from a carefully selected core vocabulary, then maybe it is that simple to add a third, fourth, fifth language – and the rest!

What would your 300 look like? Could you get away with fewer than 300 words? What would you add or replace to Miss Swanson and Mr McLennan’s lists? And of the languages you know a little of, how many have you reached Swanson’s functional fluency in? Let us know in the comments!

A plastic brain. Image from freeimages.com

Brain dump bonanza : splurge your way to vocabulary mastery!

This week, I’ve been rediscovering a magnificent memory boost from my student days: the brain dump!

This – admittedly indelicately named – technique shares a lot with mind-mapping. It involves taking a blank page, and simply splurging onto it the entire contents of your brain on a particular theme. And it is invaluable for taking stock of your knowledge, as well as recycling, revising and reinforcing material learnt.

As I’ve been dabbling in a bit of Irish lately, it seemed a good time to give it the brain dump treatment. It was a pleasant surprise:

A brain dump of elementary Irish

A brain dump of elementary Irish

That ‘wow!’ effect is one of the greatest things about the humble brain dump. It lays bare just how much you have learnt – something we often fail to realise in the thick of it. And if you are feeling the fight, that could be exactly what you need. What a great confidence boost!

What’s more, brain dumping is a wonderful means of information synthesis. If you learn from several resources – for example, apps, podcasts and various course books – the technique allows all that material to flow out and mix together in a single place. That can only help to make connections and beat any contextual limits on your recall. My Irish splurge above, for example, is the product of a lot of Duolingo, much idle book browsing, a bit of Wiktionary hunting, and a fair few words picked up from 1990s Eurovision hosts!

So what makes for a brilliant brain dump?

Brain dump 101

What really recommends this technique is its absolute ease. You can simply launch straight into the fun with pen and paper.

However, like mind maps, it’s even better to have fun with lots of pens, customising with colours and creative doodles. You can use colours logically, coding for categories of words or topics, or just according to taste. After all, this is your brain we’re talking about. Let your splurge represent the contents of your mind in all its colourful glory. Create a real sense of ownership over all those words and phrases in your head!

Brain dump apps

As no-nonsense as old school is, you can still bring brain dumpage right up-to-date with a bit of technology. Note-taking mobile apps in particular offer a degree of finesse and editability that is difficult to achieve with plain old pen and paper. This is especially handy if you are (like me) fickle and prone to changing your mind about how your creation takes shape, or need several attempts to get it all just right.

I use Notability on the iPad with Apple Pencil to create mine. In use, it offers all the freedom and fun of a pack of coloured pens. But the lasso-cut-paste feature is a godsend if you like moving things around, making room for extra items and are a stickler for precision placement. If you can geek and tweak to your heart’s content, you can more readily create something to be really proud of.

Editing a brain dump in Notability

Editing a brain dump in Notability

There is another helpful advantage to using editable media like a tablet to create a brain dump. If you are a little unsure of a term, write it down regardless. You can always check later, then come back to update your chart with the corrected form. Half-knowing something is still knowledge you can claim as your own. The very process of self-correction will help cement that word in your mind.

Tailor to your level

Of course, brain dumping is perfect for learners at A1/2. Having studied for just a couple of months or so, you can brainstorm all the vocab you know onto a single page. They are the core words that form the foundation of your later proficiency. Displaying them in one place will really help them stick.

But brain dumping is not just for beginners.

If you are more advanced, attempting an outpouring of all your knowledge is a mammoth task. So choose just a single topic instead. Food, travel, politics – a brain dump is an ideal medium for revisiting what you know. And it makes for brilliant prep if you are planning to talk about those topics in a forthcoming class or tutorial.

Want to add an element of challenge? Set yourself a time limit, say, five minutes, and see how much material you can churn out on your given subject.

Cheat sheets

When you’ve filled a page with learnt material, completed brain dump charts make great cheat sheets or reference guides, too.

Here’s one on the psychology of learning I created during exam revision some years ago. It makes a handy at-a-glance guide to refresh my memory even now, years later. Note how much tidier this is, compared with my more rough-and-ready Irish exercise above – it’s a good idea to spend time making them look nice if you plan to use them this way!

A brain dump for the psychology of learning

A brain dump on the psychology of learning – a great refresher sheet years later!

So for confidence, synthesis and recall support, brain dumping can be a simple and effective addition to your learner toolkit. Try building a regular brain dump into your language learning and enjoy the leg-up it gives you to memory mastery. Find natural breaks in your routine where a stocktake makes sense, for example, the end of a chapter or book section, or a section separator in Duolingo.

And stick to the rule that material learnt is never material ‘done with’. To keep it fresh, recycle, recycle, recycle!