Polyglot Conference 2013: Looking back on Budapest

I’ll always remember that week leading up to the Polyglot Conference in Budapest as one in which I was extremely nervous. When I first heard about it from Luca Lampariello and Richard Simcott, whom I met in Italy in November, my initial reaction was that it was nuts. Firstly I couldn’t believe that two people would want to take on so much work in addition to their already busy lives and existing commitments, and all at great expense to themselves. Secondly I had doubts about whether the whole idea would even work: what was going to happen when you took a group of people who’ve never even met, having interacted only behind computer screens on Facebook and YouTube, and put them all in a room in Hungary for the weekend? My biggest fear of all was that it might turn out to be one of those ruthless YouTube massacres, but only this time in real life. The trolls would be sitting there, hurling their trollage at the vulnerable polyglots as they stood up on stage, desperately trying to work out how to deal with the onslaught without the aid of the ‘delete comment’ and ‘report spam’ buttons. And so, as the date grew closer and my own talk started to look more and more unfinished, I was fairly apprehensive.

I work best under pressure, but I was pushing it with my presentation last week.

I work best under pressure, but I was pushing it with my presentation last week.

But that wasn’t just my only concern. A number of other speakers had also commented that they were nervous, and the reason why was because there was no way of telling how the conference would go: there had never been anything like it before. How was I supposed to pitch my speech? My only previous experiences were of academic conferences, consisting of people reading out 5000 word essays to people who were nodding off, playing Bejewelled, and trying to work out exactly how they were going to pose that question to the speaker afterwards, along the lines of “would you mind emailing me that speech because I didn’t listen to a word of it and at some point I’d really like to rip it off.” Besides, before when I’d been speaking publically about languages, it had been a fairly simple case of preaching to the non-believers. This time it was different: not only would I be preaching to the converted, but I would even be preaching to the preachers. For one whole hour, the people that I had always looked to for advice and inspiration would suddenly be listening to me.

However it didn’t take long after I’d arrived on the first day for all of my concerns to be put to rest. As I went up the stairs to the convention room, the whole building seemed to be buzzing. There were language books everywhere, all sorts of airport luggage tags on the floor, and all the signs that this could only be the meeting of one very special group of people. These were the famous YouTube polyglots, and for the first time ever they were all gathered together at the same time, in the same place. The enthusiasm was infectious.

Photo by Maria Makienko

Although the days were fairly intense, starting at 9 and 10 and finishing at 5.30 and 7.30, the participants had to be physically removed from the building at the end of each day, simply so as not to incur further costs with the venue. Everybody was absolutely enthralled, and I was no exception. All the speeches were filmed with the help of Stu Fergus (Wolf Lilt), and will be edited and posted on the Polyglot Conference’s YouTube Channel in about a month’s time, so that everyone will get a chance to watch them if not for the first time, then again.

And I will certainly be doing that. We started off with a brief introduction by Veronika Tóth, who played a big role in organising the event, about the language clubs she has been running in Budapest. We then heard a really moving speech by Susanna Zaraysky about endangered languages. She also talked about the work that she has been doing trying to film a documentary about the story of one of Sarajevo’s last surviving Ladino speakers, who says the language saved his life in the Second World War. Carole Westerkamp then took the stage to give all of our brains a good rattle, as she talked to us about “The Power of Words”, and showed us how our memories work and what we might be saying without realising it.

Judith Meyer then gave us a fascinating talk about computational linguistics, explaining how internet-based translation services such as Google Translate work, and describing what they might look like in the future. We then had two very interesting talks about Esperanto by Zsófia Pataki and Eva Fitzelová, who seemed to have brought a particularly large contingent of enthusiasts with them. Esperanto seemed to generate a lot of interesting conversations and heated discussions over the weekend!

Giving my speech in Budapest

Then I gave my talk about learning small languages, including a little introduction to Yiddish. When I had gone through my talk before it had never lasted longer than 25 minutes, and the daunting hour slot had been something I was worried I wouldn’t be able to fill. However the moment I was on the stage I was really taken aback by the warmth, the interest and the enthusiasm of that audience of experts, and before I knew it we only had ten minutes left for questions. I was really touched by the positive response I got from everyone, and I’m so glad to have been able to get some publicity for Yiddish. Benny Lewis ended the day by giving us all a master class in how to improve our blogs, how we should be making our videos, and how to try and reach as wide and diverse an audience as possible. I really took a lot of points from him, and found him to be a really approachable and down to earth guy.

The next day I unfortunately missed the two careers-based talks by Robert Bigler on interpreting and translating, and Ryan Boothe on conflict management. I did however catch all of Anthony Lauder’s talk on being bad at languages, or a ‘polynot’ in the local terminology. Anthony, the man behind the famous Fluent Czech YouTube channel, has an incredible story to tell, and he brought the house down with his fantastic powerpoint presentation of over 260 slides. He says his experiences of languages are from the point of view of someone who had spent their whole life being convinced that he was no good at them. His speech is full of invaluable advice, and I urge everyone to watch this as soon as it comes out!

Anthony Lauder (Fluent Czech) introducing us to the mathematician's approach to languages

Anthony Lauder (Fluent Czech) introducing us to the mathematician’s approach to languages

We were then given an insight into the workings of Hungarian by local expert Atilla Mártonfi, the only speech to be delivered not in English, before Russian polyglot and ESOL teacher Svetlana Graceva told us about her experiences learning languages from abroad, in a country where – as I know from my experiences – only 5% of the population claims to speak English, despite 90% studying it. The session was finished off by Kőrösi Bálint, who told a story and offered an analogy that I think rang true with everybody in the room. Languages were just like sport, and to get the most out of them we had to work together, and help each other. That was one of the most crucial messages that I left Budapest with.

I managed to catch Richard’s talk about the role that linguists can play in online moderation but unfortunately I had to miss Luca, who closed the conference as a whole, to catch my flight back home. I feel like I could write at least another ten posts of this length about the conference and still not have written enough. I’m absolutely buzzing with ideas now, and loads more new material for the blog.

Kőrösi Bálint captured the atmosphere of the whole conference perfectly with his talk about sport and languages

Kőrösi Bálint captured the atmosphere of the whole conference perfectly with his talk about sport and languages

Beyond the speeches, the most wonderful aspect of the whole weekend was the chance to meet other language learners, and all sorts of them. There were ones who had come from as far away as California and Kazakhstan, and those that just lived across the street. Everybody wrote down the languages they wanted to speak on their name badges, and the rule was you couldn’t speak your first language to anyone other native speakers. In the space of two days I managed to speak every language I knew, and not just the ones I’m most comfortable with. There was no element of competition and no superiority by anyone. The atmosphere was simply one of everyone encouraging everyone else from all sides. People would help you out when you struggled with a word, and at the end of the day they just wanted to speak! Even I was persuaded to wheel out my miserable Italian by some particularly insistent native speakers, who made me feel like I could actually speak it far better than I’d thought. And just as I was beginning to think I’d got away with it, someone came bounding up to me at the end of the first day and proceded to have a full conversation with me in Catalan about the billingual education system in Catalunya. I was very tired though, and he let me reply in Spanish when my Catalan broke down.

We were told to write the language we wanted to speak in on our name badges. We weren't allowed to use our first language with  other native speakers.

We were told to write the language we wanted to speak in on our name badges. We weren’t allowed to use our first language with other native speakers.

I met so many inspirational people, including Maria Makienko from Russia who had moved to Greece two years before to go to university, yet in that time had managed to pick up absolutely flawless and native-level Greek. There was also a man from Italy, Emanuele Marini, who was not that well known before, but turned out to speak over 35 languages, and all extremely fluently. When I spoke to him in Greek and Russian I was convinced in both instances that he was a native speaker. He amazed absolutely everyone, and luckily someone managed to snap him up for a video in one of the breaks. Hopefully we’ll all be hearing a lot more from him soon!

I went to Budapest at a time when I was starting to feel a bit demotivated about languages, and I thought I was running out of material for my blog. I was stressed, I was busy, and life was really starting to get in the way. Now I’ve returned so inspired. I’m going to work harder on my languages, on my blog, and sort out getting some more videos up on YouTube. I couldn’t ever have imagined a friendlier or more encouraging and inspiring group of people to share my language learning experience with. In many ways I still felt like a bit of a newcomer to the well-established online community, and sometimes I’ve felt uncomfortable with the level of publicity that my video with the BBC generated last year. Sometimes it’s especially felt like none of that has really been under my control. I didn’t exactly choose all this coverage, I just entered a competition because I wanted to win an iPad. But when I met Richard, Luca and David Mansaray back in November, they persuaded me that actually, I might have something to offer the community. We made a video, which showed me that it can just be as simple as that. Then when I came across Stu Fergus’s article about YouTube polyglots in December, I was shocked to see my name at the top of the list. That was what made me decide to set up this website, and since then my experiences of the online community have grown, and I have never looked back.

The question now is where to go next. I’m delighted that the Polyglot Conferences will continue, with the next meetup in New York and Montreal in October 2014. I would honestly urge anyone to try and go, and I’m going to look into making the trip closer to the time. What this weekend proved to me, was that even if you don’t consider yourself a language expert, you will have never experienced an atmosphere as unique as this, and you will never leave anything feeling so confident and inspired. The conference and its coming videos offer something for everyone everywhere, and I’m really proud to be able to say that I was a part of it.


Why learning a language is like meeting the in-laws

Language learning is about a lot more than just learning verb tables. Anyone who has spent years studying one will tell you that still, every now and then, there are times when it feels like you’ve made no progress at all, that there are still misunderstandings, there are still words you’ve never heard of, and you still sometimes get a response that consists of a polite smile and a cascade of sympathetic English. It’s a funny situation: at times you can feel like a fully-fledged member of the club, while at others you might wonder whether you even speak the language at all. On the one hand you’re in, on the other you’re also out.

It’s a lot like meeting the in-laws. Your partner’s family is happy to have you there. They welcome you, offer you a seat at their dinner table, and start to treat you like one of their own. But just as you start to relax and really “feel at home”, you do something horrific and unthinkable, like ask for the salt without realising the huge insult that it might seem to your new mother-in-law’s cooking. Maybe, to the family’s horror, you even try to strike up a conversation about football, which turns out to be a taboo subject for them over dinner. Or maybe they start talking about politics, and you find yourself left with nothing to say. Suddenly you find yourself feeling more than a little out of place and that the future of your relationship rests on a lot more than the opinions of just one family member. Because you’re a newcomer you will get the benefit of the doubt, but you realise that despite the seemingly warm welcome, you’re not in your own house.  Therefore, you need to tread carefully.

But you’re not the only person in this situation. Perhaps your partner has siblings who have invited their other halves to dinner as well. What gets you through the excruciating affair are the knowing, encouraging glances you can shoot each other when the going gets tough. You’re both outsiders there, you’re both faced with the same challenges, and you’re both making just as conscious an effort to fit in. You might not know each other or even be from entirely different places, but your shared experience of “the in-laws’” can bring you together. When you get a chance to exchange a few words, it’s a lot more relaxed and down to earth. You know they’re not going to be offended if you mention football or confess that you’ve brought your own salt, because the household’s etiquette is just as unfamiliar to them as it is to you. With them you can drop the pretences and behave more like yourself. But despite this small comfort, you’ve still got a lot to learn before the family will accept you as a fully-fledged member.

Each language has its own complex of set of rules, conventions, dos, and don’ts. There are dialects, nuances, registers and slang-words that each appropriate to different situations. As you dive as a language learner into this complicated world, it’s important to work out where you are starting off. What impression are you actually giving? Does your pronunciation infer anything you might not be aware of? Are you using regionalisms that might not be understood in other parts of the country? Are you adjusting your register for when you’re talking to friends or strangers? When is it acceptable to use expletives?

These kinds of questions are not necessarily easy to answer, and realistically it might take you years to fully get your head round them. You should also be prepared for the answers to only come to you through plenty of uncomfortable moments and embarrassing faux pas. But don’t worry too much. What you can’t express through your language you can make up for in other ways. While you’re trying to work out why an innocent hand gesture to order five bottles of beer made your Greek waiter’s eyes flash red with rage, or while you’re waiting for someone to explain to you the different effects created by “I don’t care” and “I don’t mind”, this might be a good time to make a tactical retreat into your ‘foreign comfort zone’. Make an excuse, and try to make sure your body language reflects your true intentions, even if what comes out of your mouth doesn’t. If you smile and look like “that idiot foreigner”, you might just get away with it.

But I’m not advocating that you use this tactic forever. It’s just a useful vantage point from which to observe and remember what is and isn’t the done thing. You can be excused for saying or doing something wrong the first couple of times you visit your in-laws, but if you want to become part of the family you’ll have to adjust to their rules.

But that is a big ‘if’. We all have different motives for learning languages, and perhaps for some becoming a member of the family is of little interest or relevance. Sure, you’re an outsider to them and you might put your foot in it sometimes, but you can’t be accused of pretending not to be. Besides, you are sitting at the table, eating their food and having a conversation of sorts, so what does it really matter if there are the occasional crossed wires?  And what if you’re not even really there to meet the in-laws? After all, the other non-family members you’ve met at the table aren’t particularly bothered about whether your fork is in your left hand or your right.

And so we come to the difficult question of why we learn languages. As an English speaker, I’m fortunate that communicating is not always something I need to worry about. Nowadays it is true that you can make yourself understood in most places with some kind of English, and that means that I don’t need foreign languages in the same way that a non-English speaker might. In fact, just being able to communicate comes fairly low on my list of priorities. When I learn a language, it is always the in-laws that I have in mind. It’s not enough for me to just sit at the table, I want to become a member of the family. That means that I want to know what I sound like, I want to know about nuances and turns of phrase, and that I manage to cope every time I put my foot in it by seeing that as part of a long process leading to a point when I will be able to walk around my new family’s house with pristine clean shoes all the time. I use the ‘foreign comfort zone’ to make sure my hosts aren’t offended by my mistakes, but it’s never my intention to stay in there longer than I have to.

I believe that learning a language gives you an insight into how other people think. But that aspect of the process is diminished if you just speak your new language as you would your own. Yes, it might be easier to stay in your comfort zone, and no, perhaps doing so doesn’t really affect your ability to communicate with others around the world, but it does seem a great shame to simply put to one side the intricacies, individual quirks and personality traits that other languages can offer. When each language gives us such a broad, rich and fascinating range of levels on which to communicate, it seems a pity to just want to remain an outsider.

Give us our language back!


I find it difficult to describe the true level of horror and dismay that I felt when I came across a news article about a recent proposal to make English the sole official language of the European Union. I find it even more difficult to come to terms with the fact that this has not come from the British – the famed monolinguals – but from the German president. This is also not the first serious suggestion of this nature that has come from a German politician, and as a result I feel that I must explain exactly why it riles me so much, and why no matter what the cost, we must strive to sustain multilingualism for the good of us all.

I am a native English speaker. I have spoken English all my life, been educated in English, I read widely in English and have been struggling with the subtleties and complications that using the language throws up in essays, exams, social and professional contexts for as long as I can remember. Let me assure you, beyond English’s seemingly simple grammar lies an unfathomably complex and elusive language that continues to baffle the majority even of its own native speakers.

English is a remarkably malleable language. It originates from the clash between Norman French and the highly Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons that occurred in 1066, when the language suddenly took on a wealth of words of Latin etymology, and later even Latinised some that were pre-existing (by the 17th Century the word ‘iland’ started to be spelt ‘island’, to erroneously infer its roots in the Latin ‘insula’ and equally ‘dette’ became ‘debt’ to mirror the Latin ‘debitum’). This is a tradition that persists to this day: ‘schadenfreude’, ‘aficionado’, ‘trek’ and even ‘bungalow’ are words that might not even register with the average English speaker as loanwords. English consequently is reported to have one of the largest vocabularies of any language in the world, which has inspired its use as a language of medium for some of the greatest art and literature that there has ever been.

badenglishBut this also one of the reasons for its being slaughtered in its relatively new role as the ‘international lingua franca’ (although we also cannot ignore the contribution made by the legacy of British imperialism and contemporary American cultural and economic dominance). “Я никогда не понимаю, когда Британцы быстро говорят” a woman on my flight back from Moscow told me, when she didn’t understand the cabin crew asking if she wanted milk with her coffee. “Других как-то всегда понимаю: Итальянцев, Немцев, Голландцев, но Британцев никогда.” (I never understand when the British speak fast. Somehow I always understand everyone else: Italians, Germans, the Dutch, but never the British.) The irony of this is almost too tragic to dwell on. Her knowledge of English had got her by nearly everywhere she’d ever been, except in the one place where the language is actually spoken.

But this story is by no means exceptional. International English is an ugly conglomeration of words loosely held together by negligible grammar and with almost no interest in register or convention. It fulfills its purpose as a primitive form of communication around the world, and as English speakers we have begrudgingly accepted that it is the norm. Some of us even resort to using it when we can’t make ourselves understood otherwise. But that is where its use should end.

Joachim Gauck’s proposal would result in the institutionalisation of this ghastly vernacular. It is wholly unfeasible to imagine that all of the politicians, civil servants and diplomats of what will be 26 non-English speaking member states would be able to master English and express themselves in a way that would do their political intentions justice. This is arguably already a huge problem. The extent to which EU officials use the English language to meet their own needs with a complete disregard for what words or phrases actually mean managed to distress one senior interpreter so much, that he compiled a 33 page report on the misuse of English in official documents. It begins: “Over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any other recognised form of English. It includes words that do not exist.”

MEU_MEPsI believe that this is even a contributing factor to the UK’s growing disenchantment with Europe. Every time the topic comes up on the news, they somehow manage to dig up what to a British audience seems like a stereotypical ‘European’, who proceeds to deliver a lecture in painful, almost unintelligible English and with the arrogance and self-assurance to try and invent words in the language. Watch this short video to see what I mean. This speech goes straight over my head, and not just because she’s using long words, but because she’s also using words that are non-existent: the Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for ‘flexibilisation’ or ‘sacrilisation’ at all. Therefore her sentence “the underlying differences make it more reasonable to expect a call for more ‘flexibilisation’, and via this ‘flexibilisation’ to have a serious competition of systems that would then solve a major problem which is how to proceed with further integration and also how to resolve the problem of competitiveness in the European Union, so that is my first point” means nothing. It demonstrates the point that no matter how meritable her intention of achieving a more united Europe may be, her inability to express this in natural or even genuine English completely undermines it.

Apart from anything, multilingualism is one of the key defining features of the European Union. The idea of a union is that anybody can come and share their ideas in an environment that encourages diversity. Forcing people to adapt and change them to fit a model that is foreign to them, such as the English language, seems to go against the very essence of what the EU is. Encouraging linguistic homogenisation can surely have no benefit to anyone, apart from saving a bit of money and destroying an entire industry made up of talented linguists.

Professional interpreters and translators are not a luxury. They are a necessity, vital for the survival of the fragile political union of one of the most linguistically and nationally diverse continents in the world. They exist because we can’t expect politicians to be as rhetorically fluent in their adopted language as they are in their own, and because they can’t expect to be able to lead us in it. Let them make their speeches in the language they know best, let them form their ideas within their linguistic comfort zone, and let conveying that to the rest of the world be the job of those that know how.

It frustrates me when people underestimate the English language. They think it’s easy and become complacent about their knowledge of it. In turn, people’s ability to speak it is declining, and an apathy towards learning correct grammatical and idiomatic usage is driving countries futher apart rather than uniting them. You can’t barge into a language and impose your own rules on it. You equally can’t ignore the way in which its own native speakers use it. The increasing acceptability of International English is a crime against language, and I think it’s time that people started showing English the respect that it deserves.

Ten ways to learn Greek for free

The internet has changed language learning forever. Suddenly all sorts of resources are available for free, wherever you are in the world, and companies such as Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur are having to really struggle to stay competitive and justify their extortionate prices. But that doesn’t mean that it’s always obvious how you can put the internet to best use for your language learning. With so many resources available, how do you know which ones will actually help you?

Below is a list of ten great free resources that you can use to help you learn Greek. Use them to complement a course, get a feel for the language, or stay in touch with Greek culture. Whatever your needs, these will help. And they’re easy on the wallet.

WARNING: Do NOT buy the ‘Teach Yourself/Complete Greek’ Course under any circumstances. I was horrified when I looked at this to see that it completely ignores aspect in verbs, one of the most important features of the language. It passes them off as ‘the future tense’ or ‘the simple past’ when this is not the case by any means, and will be extremely confusing for anybody who pursues their studies afterwards.

  1. Kypros.org 
    This is a sign up and please make a donation site, but everything is free. There are a lot of lessons accompanied by audio recordings and extensive notes, forums, and a ‘personal journal’ for you to put your learning experience to paper. The lessons go to quite an advanced stage in terms of grammar and teach fairly specialised vocabulary by the end.
    But: the course seems quite old. While the language is correct, the voices sound a bit like a 1930s cut-glass BBC accent. Don’t pick this up for going to Greece or Cyprus as you’ll sound like your great grandmother (or at least mine). Balance it out by listening to other sources for a more modern guide to pronunciation.
  2. GreekGrammar.eu
    This site is really thorough and will tell you everything that a £40 course from the bookshop will. It includes great examples and doesn’t shy away from showing you everything in verb tables complete with irregular patterns and exceptions.
    But: just a small point but the information is all presented to you in PDF files that you have to download. The plus is that you get to keep them and print them off and organise them as you want, but it might be an inconvenience if you have a slower internet connection.
    Also: check out this website by Harry Foundalis. This has very clear explanations of grammar and syntax and exercises on handwriting and some other useful phrases.
  3. Hellenic American Union podcast
    These are fantastic!! There’s a huge selection of episodes, no longer than ten minutes or so maximum that play you a dialogue, go through with new vocabulary, and then give you some basic exercises. They start incredibly basic and carry on to a respectably advanced level. This is a fantastic way to learn phrases that are so useful, and that will get you speaking in no time. The episodes are all based in Athens and are fairly modern and up to date. You’ll be amazed how much you learn just by listening to these every other day.
    But: they won’t offer you a thorough explanation of grammar, but will at least give you a good idea of how to use it in important phrases.
  4. BYKI (Before You Know It)
    This is free flashcard-style software available from Transparent Language that’ll be great to learn some basic phrases and vocabulary, and maybe even some grammar points. It’s very simple to use, the slides come with audio, and there’s an enormous selection of topics for you to choose from. I like to download as many of these kinds of free materials as possible – you never know when you’re going to come across a useful word!
    But: this really is just flashcards. Don’t look for explanations here, and don’t rely just on this to learn the language.
  5. YouTube courses
    This channel has some really useful videos for getting used to the alphabet, consonant clusters and pronounciation, as well as then moving onto some basic vocabulary. Greek spelling is not that straight forwards so it’s important to have a good grounding in it so you don’t get lost later down the line! The videos are clear, there’s even some kind of audio in them, and there nice and concise at no more than 3 minutes each.
    But: the videos aren’t particularly exciting. If you’re happy to just watch a powerpoint presentation with words fading in and out then you’ll be fine. If you think you might get bored, try something else.
  6. Online dictionaries
    It’s a great shame that there aren’t more of these. The one in the link (Word Reference) is good but it only really works for English to Greek. If you speak German then the online Pons is one of the best available online in any language, and got me through my time at the Greek embassy in Berlin last summer!
    But: these resources are limited. Hopefully one day they’ll release a proper one for Greek. Langauges like French and Italian always seem to get priority.
  7. ERT (Greek TV online)
    Don’t start off here, but this will be really useful for when you start reaching an intermediate level. You can watch nearly all Greek TV channels live for free, and you can watch recordings of past programmes as well. Greek TV often plays a lot of foreign (especially English, Russian, Turkish and Arabic) series with Greek subtitles rather than dubbing them, and they show a wealth of foreign films too. This is fantastic for anyone learning Greek – try and follow the subtitles and work out the words that you don’t understand while listening to the original English. I learnt a lot about vocabulary and grammar structures this way!
    But: make sure you’ve found something you actually want to watch, and don’t lose heart if it’s hard to read the alphabet quickly at first!
  8. Greek Radio
    Music is so important in language learning, and even more so in Greek. Derti FM  plays only traditional Greek (laïki) music – this is all about love, pain, suffering, Spring, and all the melodrama that Greek culture has brought us. You might also want to check out Mad FM which is slightly more modern, and Athina 98,4 which has a mix of music, current affairs and feature programmes.
    But: it has been brought to my attention that not everyone likes Greek music. I believe this is something that can be changed. And don’t get too depressed every time they read out the weather forecast.
  9. Diaspora publications
    Not always strictly in Greek, but they cover Greek stories that you might hear or read about in the Greek media. It’s great to brush up on what’s going on in English first before you read up about it in a real Greek newspaper. This will help you follow it better. Greece has an enormous diaspora community across the world numbering several million. These communities often very much maintain their Greek identity and pass the culture on to their children and grandchildren (like me!)
    But: diaspora communites are always slightly more conservative and out of touch with what’s going on back home. Don’t use this as your only source of information for Greece or Cyprus.
  10. Greek newspapers
    All available online and with impressive and accessible websites. The Kathimerini even has an English language subsection.
    But: (and this is a big but) Greek newspapers are notoriously difficult to read. This is really for when you’re at an extremely advanced stage of learning. The language used is very different to the language of the street and is largely based on words of Ancient Greek origin that you may never come across otherwise. However, one day academic Greek will be an important stage in your learning journey, and online newspapers are an excellent way of accessing it for free.

YouTube video: techniques for learning vocabulary

I’ve made a new YouTube video in which I talk about three different techniques for learning vocabulary: contextual, visual and associative. I’ve been using these techniques for learning Hungarian, which I’m trying to do in time for the polyglot conference in Budapest next month.

Vocab learning is something that I get asked about a lot, and it’s a very difficult question to answer properly. The truth is everyone learns differently, and you can’t tell someone “this is the way” and have done with it. My advice is always to experiment with different methods and see which one brings you the best results.

As I mention in the video, I’m just starting out with Hungarian. I’m really enjoying it, it’s such a beautiful language and it’s so interesting to be dealing with one from a completely different language family to all the others I’ve studied so far. I’ll definitely be posting further updates on how I get on.

As for now, enjoy the show!

Procrastination: Your language learning enemy and how to get past it

by guest author Lizzie Davey

We’re all guilty of procrastinating every once in a while – some more than others. We often find ourselves putting an important task off or filling our time with small, inconsequential ‘missions’ that we try to convince ourselves we need to do. Then suddenly, an hour or a whole day has passed and our to-do list remains un-ticked and disapproving.

DistractionsThese days, the internet is a hearty source of procrastination; it’s easier to get distracted by pictures of sleeping cats or trivial Facebook statuses than it is to do what we actually need (and want) to do. And then we try to convince ourselves that it was essential to scroll through those Reddit posts for hours, or to end up in the depths of the funny animals section of YouTube to momentarily make ourselves feel better.

The truth is, procrastination isn’t too difficult to overcome, particularly if you know why you are doing it and the steps you can take to remove yourself from its clutches.

Learning a language is prime time for procrastination to rear its ugly head. We should be doing those grammar exercises, memorising those flashcards, or reading that difficult passage of text, but we don’t because they seem unappealing and, let’s face it, there’s always something better to do.

Or is there?

There are actually three reasons why people procrastinate. It’s not because there are better things to do; it’s because there are other issues that once mastered and dealt with, can mark the end of procrastination for good.

Firstly, there’s the notion of low expectancy. When people expect to fail at the task in hand, they are less likely to feel inclined to do it. This is perhaps the most common reason for procrastination; it’s why people don’t stick to diets, why students find it difficult to write term papers, and why people give up learning a language.

Learning a language is a huge task to set your hand to and, at the start, it’s difficult to imagine that you will ever be fluent (if that’s your aim). If you start out with the idea that you’re going to fail, prepare to procrastinate with the best of them! There are ways to get past this, though, which I will discuss later.

Next, there’s the small problem of tasks being low value; basically a task we don’t want to do. Life’s short, so why would we want to spend it doing something we don’t like? Well, sometimes we have to and, anyway, do we really enjoy looking at page after page of small dogs wearing hats? Actually, don’t answer that.

When you start to learn a language, it should be something you want to do. However, there’s always going to be something within that – revising grammar, doing homework – that isn’t going to be as much fun, but it’s something that needs to be done to progress. Sometimes it’s just best to force yourself to knuckle down and do it, though this is much easier said than done.

Procrastination3The final cause of procrastination is impulsiveness. This is where we keep getting distracted by something more fun or interesting, particularly if the task we need to carry out has an indeterminate deadline or is way ahead in the future. A lot of language students fall foul of this issue because language learning is a long, drawn out process that isn’t going to happen instantly. When something seems so far away, it’s easy to keep putting the things that you need to do to reach it off in favour of other more pressing matters.

This ties in with George Akerlof’s theory that the rewards of doing something right now, otherwise known as instant gratification, are much more appealing than the rewards of something long-term (like language learning), meaning we are more likely to watch the parody video of Justin Beiber on YouTube than practice our verb conjugation because it offers us instant pleasure. Basically, the longer it is before we reap the benefits of a task, the less likely we are to do it and will instead for other things to fill the time with.

So, how can you overcome procrastination?

Now you know what procrastination is and its causes, you can start making steps to break away from it.

Success Spirals are a great way to get past the black hole of procrastination, and are particularly useful when carrying out a long-term task like language learning.

Instead of thinking about the huge daunting task of becoming fluent in your chosen language, break it up into easy to digest chunks. When you start completing small challenge after small challenge, your confidence grows and the end point doesn’t seem like a dark, looming mountain in the distance. After a while you’ll find yourself more excited to complete the next task, and the next, and so on.

Don’t make the small tasks too challenging though, or you’ll fall foul of low expectancy. Make sure they are things you can succeed at, and use them as stepping stones to lever yourself off to the next stage.

Perhaps the most powerful way to overcome procrastination, though, is to be passionate about what you are doing. If you love learning a language you will have no problem staying focused because the distractions begin to fade into the background. There’s no point forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do if you don’t have to do it because, well, you just won’t do it.

There will always be aspects of language learning that you might not enjoy and procrastination might begin to surface, but just remember to keep tasks small and manageable and you’ll soon find yourself flourishing without the shackles of  it.

Author bio: Lizzie writes for Teenagers Abroad and other language school sites. Last year she went to learn Spanish in Spain where she realized that language learning has to become a part of everyday life if you want to succeed. In her spare time you can find her exploring Europe and further afield, watching nature documentaries, and drinking an obscene amount of tea.   

Reviving my Russian: where next on the path to fluency?

P3280497I did know that I was going back to Russia. I had surrendered two A4 sheets of personal information and paid £85 for the priveledge to the Russian Visa Centre in London, waited nervously a whole week for its return with a shiny brown sticker, and  had been monitoring the weather forecast to help decide whether or not to take my 0 to -15 coat or the one for more extreme scenarios. Yet, I only really started to get an inkling of what I was returning to when I, sleep deprived and disgruntled by the displeasure of making the trek to Gatwick in the middle of the night, was sitting at the gate marked ‘Moscow’ at half past six in the morning and watching a well dressed, middle-aged woman brandishing a bright red Russian passport take out everything she had bought at duty free, fold up the plastic bags they had had come in and tuck them away safely in her suitcase for later use. I realised then and there that there was no escape: I was back in the madhouse.

As we came down through the mile or so of cloud that was lingering above Eastern Europe that day, I was greeted by the sight of Russia’s iconic silver birch trees poking out from the snow, just as bare, just as pointed, and just as interminable as the last time that I had set eyes on them. They used to welcome me back every time I returned to Russia and this was to be no exception. I was to spend the next day or two in shock. It was not so much culture shock – I had been preparing myself for that – it was more the shock that everything was still there. That unmistakable smell of dust, sweat, cigarette smoke and cheap air freshener hit me as soon as I walked off the plane into Domodedovo arrivals, and the long dark tunnels of Moscow’s crazy metro system were awash with swarms of fur, leather, and duty free carrier bags. As my train pulled into Yaroslavl that evening (an hour earlier, but 200 roubles dearer than it would have been the year before), I suddenly found myself dragging my suitcase over unsurmountable piles of snow and ice, and before I knew it once again I was sitting in Svetlana’s kitchen with a big plate of steaming cabbage in front of me. It was all as though I had never left.

Reassuringly, some things always stay the same. Russia seems to be one of them.

Reassuringly, some things always stay the same.

Russia may not have changed, but as I scrabbled to find my feet there in the first few days, something else had. My Russian, which when I left I had speaking effortlessly and spontaneously, had taken a hit. I knew it was in there somewhere, but it was as though the freezing temperatures had taken it by surprise, and it was stuck somewhere in my throat, refusing to come out. Case declensions (shaky ground for any foreigner) were off the table, and on my first day my interaction with local people was resigned to pointing and barking words in the nominative. But on the other hand, my understanding was better than it had ever been – I could read all the signs, I had since learned to decipher unfamiliar words, and was having great fun listening in to all the conversations going on around me. With horror, the realisation slowly dawned on me: I was mute. Russia was all around me and I could hear it, smell it, read it and understand it, but I couldn’t interact with it.

Whenever I go to a new country I find it takes a few days to adjust to a different language, no matter how well I speak it. You’re converting your knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and all that other fun stuff that makes up a language into useful, practical tools to help you get around. Of course, that’s rarely an instant process. Equally on this occasion my inability to talk didn’t last too long, and soon enough I had awoken my Russian skills from the hibernation they had entered last May, and was taking them out to get some exercise. But as I relaxed into the Russian rhythm of things and spent my days wandering around my old home, reminiscing and reliving one of the best years of my life, I started to notice a big difference to when I was there before. Back then the most important thing was being understood, navigating perilous situations in supermarkets, taxis and mobile phone shops, and trying to establish some way of functioning. This I had done, but now it wasn’t enough. More than just to be understood, I realised that this time I wanted to master Russian, I wanted to be able to use it the way Russians do, expressing the tiniest shades of meaning through the nuances of their heavily idiomatic and breathtakingly beautiful mother tongue. I didn’t want to be the foreigner any more, and just use that as an excuse for my barren vocabulary. I wanted to be as articulate and expressive as a local, and surprisingly, for the first time in my life that was starting to look like it might be within reach.

A defining characteristic of the Russian language is its on-going battle between the “литературный” (literatúrniy) and “разговорный язык” (razgavórniy yazík) – the written and spoken language. They have different grammar rules, different vocabularies, and while the former may generally be seen as more correct, you won’t get anywhere in Russia without a knowledge of the latter. But equally, not knowing the formal language, which finds its roots deep in the great Russian literary tradition, will make you sound uneducated, inarticulate, and, as is often the case, like a foreigner. Russian’s beauty lies in its ability to concisely express concepts that, while not uncommon in English, can be conveyed only through set phrases or descriptions that can sound long-winded or unnatural. Here is an example:

The burger that inspired me to learn Russian properly

The burger that inspired me to learn more Russian

On arriving in Moscow I met with my friend who had also been in Yaroslavl and was doing an internship in Moscow over the holidays. We rushed straight to our former guilty pleasure: the American restaurant T.G.I. Friday’s (or in Russian Т.Ж.И. Фрайдис). The waiter brought us the menus but we both knew what we wanted and both ordered the same thing. The waiter then asked:
“Вам меню не пригодилось?”
(Vam menyú nye prigodílos’?)

Neither of us had heard of the verb пригодиться. Later, the dictionary told us that it meant “to be useful to someone”. It turns out he was making a joke about our eagerness to order and had commented “So the menu wasn’t useful to you?”. I would never have imagined that there was just a single verb in Russian that expressed this, and I would either have said (in my stilted, foreign, paralysed Russian) “Вам меню не помогло?” (Vam menyú nye pamagló?) “So the menu didn’t help you?”, or more literally “Вам меню не было полезно?” (Vam menyú nyé bilo palyézna?). “Полезно” is a direct translation of the English “useful”, but for all I know in this context it may be completely inappropriate: its secondary meaning is “healthy” and it could well imply that I was urging the person I was addressing to eat his menu.

Equally there is the word “вертушка” (vyertúshka), which according to the dictionary means “a revolving object”. This is just one of the many object classification groups that do not exist in English. Although we are perfectly capable of understanding the concept, it would be unnatural for us to see a turnstile, a propeller, a spinning top and a revolving door and intuitively produce a single word that describes them all, in the same way that we can substitute the names dog, lion, mouse and giraffe for the word “animal”. But here we are starting to stray onto the complicated subject of how languages change the way we think.

It's important not to get stuck in Russian's distinctive way of thinking when learning the language.

It’s important not to get stuck in Russian’s unique way of thinking when learning the language.

But I think that this is one of the biggest challenges facing English speakers who are trying to learn Russian. The language is not difficult just because it’s hard to pronounce, it’s written in a different alphabet, and doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard before in your life, but also because the words you’re learning could well be used to describe concepts you’ve never heard of, could never imagine, or would never have thought it would be necessary to imagine. This is why I firmly believe that the best way to master Russian is to spend a long time in Russia, in an immersed environment, interacting and coming to terms with the Russian mindset. That is the best hope you have of casting some light on things.

My challenge now is how to access this kind of vocabulary from abroad. This is where literature пригодится – you are exposed by the author to a greater range of scenarios than you would by just being in the street, which in turn brings with it a wider range of vocabulary, expressions and nuances. Reading novels with a dictionary to one side, or even a copy of the English translation, will offer you a chance to learn these words in a relevant, authentic context, while also improving your language skills generally. If reading isn’t really your thing, watch the news, listen to speeches, watch old films or do anything that will help you to tackle this vocabulary head on. If we do this regularly, we enter a whole new realm of what our languages can do for us.


Who can learn languages?

One of the most important roles of a language learning blog is myth-busting. Language learning unfortunately seems to be a subject eternally shrouded in the mists of rumour and unfounded generalisations. The news that someone can speak a language is greeted with great surprise, admiration and even envy by others, and this contributes to the idea that there is a certain type of person capable of learning them. These people are referred to as ‘polyglots’, and there is a quite clear distinction: you either are one or you’re not. In this post I would like to put to rest the idea of the “cult of the hyperpolyglot“, as the BBC so helpfully named it, and prove once and for all that anyone can learn a language.

Screen Shot 2013-03-27 at 15.18.26I don’t like the word ‘polyglot’ for the same reason that I don’t like the word ‘fluent‘. Both imply that the work is done, that people who are given these titles can then skip off happily into the open world of multilingualism, suddenly as comfortable in one language as in any. It’s worth reiterating that I have never met anybody who fits this misconceived idea of multilingualism. Language learning is an on-going, never ending process – there is always more to learn, and there will always be moments when you might make mistakes that expose yourself as a non-native speaker. The word ‘polyglot’ calls to mind the YouTube community, who are referred to or refer to themselves as such, and it seems that these are the people held up as language experts, to whom people turn for all sorts of advice for their own studies. But in reality, they are just humans, and just language learners too, and they should not be seen as any different to anyone else.

If you take a look at the YouTube community, it becomes clear that there seems to be a particular type of person who is a ‘polyglot’. Using Wolf Lilt’s compilation of 20 YouTube polyglots as a guide, we see that 16 are men, nearly all are from Europe or the United States, and nearly all are in the 20-35 age bracket. Does that mean that we can assume that your chances of being a polyglot are higher if you’re a 20-35 year old white male? No. It’s important to remember that these are simply other learners, who for whatever reason have videos on YouTube that actively encourage people to learn languages as well. They are by no means a representative group of people who learn languages worldwide, and equally they are in no way ‘super human’. For the few people with YouTube videos on the internet, I maintain that there are far more out there for whom multilingualism is not a claim to fame but a fact of life, which they get on with without realising that they too could be classified as ‘hyperpolyglots’.

Refugee children in South Africa schoolIt is frustrating when people uphold multilingualism as something extraordinary, equate ‘polyglots’ with hyperintelligence, or try to explain it by seeing links to gender, upbringing or even sexuality, declaring them contributing factors. These gross assumptions, however, are not imposed on societies where the ability to converse in 5+ languages is the norm for whole swathes of the population. In urban Johannesburg, for example, it is very common for people to grow up speaking one language at home, another on the street, another at the shops, and to complete their whole education in English. Yet where are the camera crews there? It’s important to stress that we’re not talking here about one or two ‘exceptional’ people that have this knowledge of languages but really about the majority of the population. Here the ‘exceptional’ causes that people cite in the rest of the world as to “how polyglots managed it” do not apply. This is because in every case the one common contributing factor to multilingualism is exposure to foreign languages. Anybody who has this will be able to learn them.

Exposure comes in different forms, and getting it is an altogether different task for someone growing up in a monolingual society. Unfortunately learning by osmosis is off the table, and you will have to try harder. But the first step is to enrol at a language school, buy a course or grammar book, and start giving yourself a chance. Complement your studies with films, music and books, put on an internet radio station every now and then and listen to how the language sounds. The difference between you and someone who has grown up in a multilingual society is that you don’t have to learn another language, but that does not mean at all that you can’t. If you want something, if you’re motivated and interested in it, then there’s no reason why you can’t start using learning capacities of the brain that everybody has, even if they’re rarely used.

If you don’t notice much progress then there are two conclusions to draw: you’re either being too hard on yourself and have set yourself unrealistic expectations such as achieving the same level of fluency in your adopted language as in your native one in a relatively short period of time, or if you’re really struggling then you should look again at the methods you’re using. Language learning is an intimate brain exercise – you’re learning how it works, how to use it, and how to use it the best. Courses, teachers and the like can only do so much, the rest is left to you to work out. If you don’t like verb tables then stop using them, and work out a way to understand grammar that makes the most logical sense to you. If writing out vocabulary lists in different colours seems silly then don’t do it. Think about things that you do remember well and found easy to learn. Try to apply those methods to language learning. You should be creative, you should customise your learning experience to suit you. Just because one method worked for one person doesn’t mean that it has to work for you.

The existence of a YouTube language learners’ community is fantastic. Just the sheer diversity of people’s stories of how they have got so far should be an inspiration everybody to have a go. But these individuals are by no means the be all and end all of global multilingualism. Spare a thought for the people in China who speak Mandarin and their own regional languages, the people in Barcelona who switch effortlessly between Spanish and Catalan every day, the Swiss in their quadrilingual paradise, and the vast number of people across the former Soviet Union who speak their country’s official language plus Russian plus in many cases ‘regional’ languages as well. These are the people who aren’t on YouTube and don’t keep blogs, because their language skills would never occur to them as out of the ordinary. These are the people who are living proof that language learning is for everyone.


How do you learn languages?

Easter Sunday in Yaroslavl

The kitchen table on Easter Sunday in Yaroslavl

I often tell people that I learnt to speak Russian at the kitchen table. This is, of course, a shameless lie. I attended eight hours of language classes a week with 10-15 hours of homework on average and vocabulary lists of sometimes up to 1000 words, did this for an entire year before revising for, sitting, and having to pass first year university exams, was then hurled onto a plane to Russia and subjected to eight months of total immersion with 20 hours a week of language classes at the local university, and all this while clutching grammar books, vocabulary books and learners’ dictionaries in one hand and rummaging through the internet trying to find any sort of Russian film, music or audiobook with the other. In the midst of all this, every now and then I would sit at the kitchen table with my landlady Svetlana, and chat about how our days had been.

But just because that is a lie, that doesn’t mean that I tell it intentionally. When I think back to learning Russian, I can only really remember my time in Yaroslavl, the people I met, the conversations I had, the small victories I enjoyed like buying a train ticket by myself, being able to use the genitive to say I wanted my tea without sugar, and so on. I can hardly remember studying it in my first year at university. There must be some subconscious part of my brain that remembers all too well the torture of it, and is denying my conscious faculties access to it .

There is another element to this as well. I worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life on Russian in my first year, and while I was able to pass the exams, I finished that year still unable to say even a word of the language. By contrast, in Yaroslavl I spent my year blissfully tricking the internet into letting me watch 4OD, eagerly memorising the menu at MacDonalds, travelling the world, and in the end got an attendance mark of the ‘compulsory language course’ of around 35%. Yet, I still returned from Russia fluent. On first impressions, my experiences seem to correspond with what people in Group 1 of my fluency chart say: classroom-based language learning is a waste of time, and the only way to learn languages is to go and live in the country, breathe in the air, drink the water, and just sit back and watch your language skills grow and flourish, like some sort of vulgarly optimistic flower. But I can tell you now that this does not correspond to reality. There are no miracles in language learning, there is no massive shortcut, and there is no way to learn languages without studying (for those who were left wondering after my most recent post). The people who are most successful in language learning are those who make use of every approach, every method and every motivation, and that means that they put in just as much hard work as anyone else. But their success means that they – as I – tend to forget to mention this when describing the pleasure that it was to learn their new language.

From my graduation ceremony at Yaroslavl State University

From my graduation ceremony at Yaroslavl State University

The key here is using two different methods in conjunction to maximise your success. If I hadn’t had that first year of intensive Russian study, there is no chance that I would have survived the Russian streets. Equally if I hadn’t had my year in Russia, I would have forgotten everything and never had anything to show for all the hard work that I’d put in. What people mean when they talk about going to another country and “picking up” the language is not that they didn’t have to learn vocabulary, get their heads around grammar or struggle with pronunciation, but just that all these things are far easier to do when you are in an immersed environment. Perhaps even to the extent that it doesn’t feel like you’re doing them at all.

Both classroom-based and immersed (i.e. theoretical and practical) approaches to language learning have distinct advantages and disadvantages. It is great to get together with other motivated learners and share your experience together, with a teacher there to offer guidance, explanations, and to stop you from learning things wrong before you do too much damage. The classroom provides a forum in which you can closely study grammar and practise using it, all with the safety and reassurance of being surrounded by fellow learners making similar mistakes with very little danger of being humiliated (although it’s important not to forget, as my Russian teacher used to take great pleasure in reminding us: “You want to learn Russian language, not ugly conglomeration of sounds that maybe can be mistaken for Russian language“). With a teacher’s guidance, you follow a course that could take you to a level more advanced than you might ever have thought necessary to reach, and could give you a chance to learn high-register and technical vocabulary as well. You are never in any doubt that you are a student of the language, and this constant reminder that there is always more to learn will motivate you to pursue your studies, regardless of how much you actually already know.

But the disadvantages are firstly that you might not be sure whether what you’re learning is real. As you may never come across the language outside of the classroom, you have no proof that you’re not learning phrases that are either antiquated or just useless. For example, you may after several weeks be able to tell anyone that yesterday you read in the library for five hours and then went home and did the dishes, but what will you do when you drop your wallet in the gutter and are suddenly back to the trademark British intercultural communication technique of ‘shout and point’? Equally, apart from the occasional test you will have very few ways to discern how much progress you are making, as there are few opportunities to see how you will now fare in conversation. While, as I’ve suggested, it can be a motivating factor to feel like a student rather than a speaker, having no reference points by which to judge yourself at all can be demoralising, and leads even people who for years have studied a language to a very high level to declare that they don’t “speak” it.

Buying train tickets in Russia is one of the most challenging things you will ever have to do in your whole life.

Buying train tickets in Russia is the most challenging thing you will ever have to do in your whole life.

This is not so much the case when people are immersed in their target language. With the classroom long behind you, your language stops being something you dabble in once a week on a Thursday evening, and suddenly becomes a matter of life or death. If you don’t at least attempt to speak, how will you buy food from the supermarket and understand the difference between a sign telling you the name of a bridge and one telling you it is about to collapse? As you find yourself stranded, you will have to start to use the language that is around you, and you copy things that you see on signs, hear in shops, or ask your native speaker friends. There can be no doubt that what you’re learning is useful, and most importantly real. Then when your friends and family come to visit you, you get a chance to showcase your language skills, lapping up compliments as you guide them through train stations, order in restaurants, and generally give off the impression that you don’t stay up until 3am every time you get a letter from the council typing it into Google translate. Whatever difficulties you have at first you will overcome, and you will be able to see how your conversations with locals gradually get longer and more meaningful, and you will eventually start to describe yourself as a speaker of the language, rather than a student. After all, what better evidence can there be that you are fluent than that you live, function and thrive in a foreign country with linguistic ease?

But as you give yourself this status, the problems start to arise. There is a huge difference between being able to speak a language and purely being able to make yourself understood in it. Most mistakes are forgivable in the case of the latter, and few people will have your teacher’s discourtesy to correct you in the street. You will be able to get around, but you might sound ridiculous. This is especially likely if you are just picking up words and phrases used on the street by people around you, without any understanding of the subtleties of register and style that you are so familiar with in your native language. There is, for example, a tendency amongst some non-native speakers of English, who no doubt are heavily influenced by Hollywood and popular music, to swear excessively and relentlessly when speaking their adopted language. When and where it is appropriate to use the F-word is something that English speakers spend their whole lives working out, and so it is unthinkable that a student would be able to grasp this so quickly. It is certainly never appropriate to just uniformly substitute it for the word ‘very’, as seems to be common practice. Yet this is exactly the kind of uncomfortable territory that you begin to stray into if you just say what you hear, and when it goes wrong this will be an example of another factor to consider when deciding to study abroad: that you will at times feel like a foreigner. You will feel detached sometimes, excluded and alien to whatever society you decide to live in, and this will happen regardless of whether or not it is your fault. However the comfort zone of the classroom back in your home town will not save you when this happens, and you should be prepared for it to lead to great disenchantment and demoralisation.

So what we need to do is combine the two. We need to acquire a theoretical basis on which to approach the practical world. Immersing yourself should be something you do to consolidate, validate, and build upon what you’ve studied so far. I maintain that without at least some element of both these approaches, your efforts will not be as fruitful. So, revise your grammar before you hit the streets, and complement your evening classes with films, music, and as many real examples of language as you can lay hands on. This will help to solve the problems of your speech sounding forced and unnatural, and equally reduce the number of occasions on which you use words inappropriately. You should come to terms with the fact that however confident you feel and however much progress you make, the learning process never stops. It just becomes easier to go further with it.

This is the journey that my Russian has made. I arrived in the country with a purely theoretical knowledge of it, and left having replaced this entirely with just the ability to speak it. So far this year has been about consolidating that: applying my conversational fluency to improve my translation skills and understanding of literature, while at the same time taking care not to lose my ability to communicate. The biggest test will come in 9 days time, when I will be sitting on a plane to Moscow comfortable with my wider and more specialised vocabulary, but trying to regain the spontaneity and authenticity that I once enjoyed.


Can you learn languages without studying?

This is the dream. You turn on some kind of signal which you then listen to throughout the day, throughout the night, at work and at home. It teaches you how to speak a language. You listen to it every day. After weeks, months, years, suddenly you’re fluent. And you didn’t even notice it.

Unfortunately, this is probably the kind of thing which for the moment is confined to the world of Charlie Brooker. There is no magic switch, or anything you can do to fully replace the time and hard work that you have to commit to any studies you undertake. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some truth in the idea of “subconscious learning”, and in fact I am a great believer in it. I’ve experimented with various methods of language learning away from the books, and I think that there is definitely an extent to which it does work.

I don’t think you can completely replace conscious studying, but there are plenty of things you can do that don’t involve ‘working’ that will help you in your learning journey. In this post I’ve listed a couple that are well worth considering.



This is, as many people will tell you, one of the best ways to learn a language. You’re listening to the language being sung slowly, the words are rhyming, and they’re all thematically related to the title of the song. In any context we generally remember songs far better than just a block of text. By listening to music regularly, you’re exposing yourself to a lot of vocabulary that you might not come across straight away in the course that you’re using. It really doesn’t matter that you don’t understand what’s going on, what you’re doing here is familiarising yourself with the language. Later in your studies when you come across words, you may start to recognise some of them, even if you don’t know what they mean. The likelihood is you’ve heard them in a song, you know how they’re pronounced, and your brain has made a subconscious record of them. If you listen to lots of music particularly in one language, you’ll definitely come across some of the same words more than once. Greek music, for example, is almost always about ‘έρωτας’ (érotas), ‘αγκαλιά’ (ángalia), ‘πόνος’ (pónos) and ‘υποφέρω‘ (ypoféro) – love, embrace, pain and suffering – so these words will definitely enter your vocabulary. They’re actually also a lot more useful than you might think.

Playing tapes while you sleep

This has worked for me in the past as well. When I started learning Afrikaans I found it difficult to really get into the feel for the language, as I kept thinking about Dutch. I started playing the Teach Yourself Afrikaans CDs every night for a few weeks while I slept. At first I didn’t notice anything, thought it was a bit of a waste of time, but kept playing them because listening to Jan, Sannie, Piet and Marie’s plans to have a barbeque on the weekend were particularly good at sending me off to sleep. But then suddenly after about a week, I found myself in the middle of the day starting to think in Afrikaans. I was sprouting words that I couldn’t remember ever having learnt, but that I’d obviously heard so much in my sleep that they’d become lodged in my active memory. My pronounciation improved as well, and then when I returned to sitting down and studying it properly it was a thousand times easier than before when it was all still unfamiliar.

Total immersion

russiabordersignThis is the ideal. With every language it’d be great to just clear a few months and go sit in your target country and absorb everything. This isn’t always practical, but if you can even manage to get a week’s holiday somewhere your language will improve phenomenally. Being in the target country combines so many ‘subconscious’ learning techniques: you’re hearing the language everywhere, you’re reading it on signs, you’re seeing it on the TV, you can’t get away from it. On public transport especially you’re bombarded with the language. Anyone who’s spent time in Germany will know “Zurück bleiben bitte” off by heart, and the fantastic announcement they’d make on the trolleybuses of Yaroslavl, to the “Уважаемые жители и гости нашего города”, the respected residents and guests of our city. Again, when it comes to learning vocabulary the chances are that you may have come across it before in a relevant context, like in an advertisement or you’ve overheard it in a conversation. When you’re abroad you don’t have your native language to fall back on, and regardless of how much effort you intend to make or how good your language was before you go, you will return with a significant improvement.

If you can’t get away for a bit, you can try and recreate this immersion at home. Make signs and put them around the house, on the fridge, next to the TV. Your associative memory will start whirring when you do this, and after a few weeks of seeing them several times a day, you’ll find that you’ve learnt them pretty well.

As I’ve already said, nothing can completely replace studying, but there’s a lot you can do to help yourself. Why not give some of these really easy techniques a go, and then after a few weeks, let me know how you got on!