12 March 2015

Horses are blue, shrimps are pink

Sometimes a random conversation leads into something very specific. Today I was talking to someone who has an apartment in Spain that she occupies 4 – 6 weeks a year, she says she would love to speak Spanish but her memory is rubbish. I suggested Anki, and make it a game; every word you capture is a small victory. You can never have too much vocabulary but choose relevant words first… if you are going on a riding holiday learn the word for horse, if you want to learn diving then choose words related to dive school.

Anki lets you make your own set of flash cards, but doesn’t restrict you to just words. Google “anki” to get you started then once you have a (free) account open your deck and add new words. If you have a language like Spanish or French where words are male or female, use that to help you remember them. To me male is blue, female is pink. Anki lets you put pictures and words into your flash cards. The Spanish word for horse is “el caballo” so I look on google images for a blue horse to copy into my flash card.

Blue horse

Here’s a nice one…

Anki will test me each day to see which words I remember and which words I need to actively learn.
What image would you choose for a prawn? (hint: la gamba)

28 December 2013

Plugs and Sockets and Adaptors

Today I had a technical challenge that I was able to overcome with a few internet tricks. I needed something to make a Spanish socket accept two plugs: some sort of adaptor but I didn’t know the words for the bits I needed to buy. First off, find the word for plug, Google came up with ‘enchufe’, the problem was that it also came up with the same word for socket, although ‘base de enchufe’ seemed possible.

I tried searching for double plug/socket and came up with ‘enchufe doble’ so next search was Google images which came up with this image, which was exactly what I wanted. So off to the supermercado where I was spared the agony of trying to explain what I wanted when I saw one on the shelf. Strangely it didn’t describe itself with any of the words I had looked up, so I share this information with anyone who wants to buy a double socket adaptor in Spain. Look for a label that says ’2 tomas frontales’ and you will be okay.

Spanish electrical socket

Spanish electrical adaptor

2 May 2013

Little lessons in English

I have had a lot of help from friends in my studies and I would like to share some English snippets that others may find helpful. My first little lesson is based on some wordplay that I saw earlier today:

We call this “a play on words” where a word with two different meanings suddenly changes the sense of the statement

The curtains are drawn  …  but the rest of the furniture is real.

The verb “to draw” in this example can mean fermer and dessiner in French and in Spanish cerrar and dibujar

There are lots of English verbs connected with curtains: in the theatre the curtain is raised or lowered, at home it may be opened, closed, drawn, shut or pulled. The curtain can be suspended from a pole, rail or track. And if someone is about to fail at something we might say “it’s curtains for him”. Eg “if Chelsea lose another game it could be curtains for the manager”.

29 August 2012

Verbling: my latest recommendation

I have been talking to native Spanish speakers, online for over a week. In return for their forebearance I have been returning the compliment, in fluent English, in five minute doses. Let me introduce you to Verbling. First of all it’s free. You need a PC and ideally, a headset. A webcam would be good too but not essential.

To use it you log in to the website www.verbling.com and sign up for an account. Decide which language you want to learn (only Spanish or English for now but more to come soon) and you are ready to go. The first time I tried, I couldn’t get sound to work so I used the helpline. Jake got me sorted: I had to go into Control Panel > sounds to switch the default speakers to my USB headset (how embarrassing!).

Once connected you alternate languages every 5 minutes. There is an onscreen timer and a message appears onscreen reminding you both when it is time to change. There tends to be a 2 second lag on the audio connection, anyone used to Skype will have no problem with this. So far I have had three long conversations with fellow students in Nicaragua, Madrid and Mexico. I tend to use Verbling in the evening and it is easy to forget the time difference between UK and South America, it was 1.00am here when I finished talking with my new friend from Nicaragua.

One important tip: Verbling doesn’t work with IE9 but it does work with Chrome and probably several other browsers.

I still feel like the new kid on the block, getting used to the interface, and the different accents, and I marvel that my Castellan Spanish is so well understood, and each time is easier than the time before.

Here is a screen shot of the interface. When you are ready to chat click on the "get partner" icon and off you go…

8 May 2012

Duolingo the free language course

Learn a language for free. I’ve been waiting since December to get involved with this Project and finally I got my invitation. Duolingo is the brainchild of Luis von Ahn you can see his TED presentation where he explains what it is all about. The idea is that you study a language and it costs you nothing except for your time and effort. In return you contribute to the task of translating the Web from Spanish or French or German, into English.

The process has been made fun by using clever images and points reward systems and I find it quite addictive. If you already know a little or a lot of your target language you can fast-track by taking tests. At any stage you can review lessons and do a sentence or two of translation, it all accumulates points.

The system is described as beta, because it is still being worked on and tweaked. The interface is clean and doesn’t require too much scrolling. There are no distracting images just a friendly cartoon owl that looks sad when you fail a test and happy when you do well.


Here is a screenshot of the home page. You can see some of the stepping stones that you work through on the main screen, at the top there is a menu bar that offers “translations” (see pic 02), “questions” and “follow people”. On the top right you are shown your current level of progress along with “skill points” and “sentences translated”. There is a suggested order for tackling the lessons but it is quite flexible.


Once you are in the lesson there are options to study, translate and if you feel you already know the material you can take a test. Within the test there are no helpful hints. Very occasionally I was marked wrong for an answer that I believed to be correct or a valid alternative, when this happens it is easy to report (although you don’t get the mark awarded). You are tested on translation both ways and various grammar points, it is very unforgiving on typos. You might get away with the odd missed accent but that’s about all. I particularly like the option on the listening exercise where you can slow down the speech; it makes it easier to catch the endings eg nuestra vs nuestro.

There is an option of using a microphone that I haven’t tried.


Here is a screen shot of a typical translation exercise. At the moment the degree of difficulty seems random but that could change as the program develops. One nice feature is that you can hover over a word to get an instant (robot) translation. Some users complain about the small choice of subject matter but I haven’t found that to be a major issue. I will read just about anything!

If you have a competitive streak you can follow your fellow students on Twitter (it makes it easy to do this) and your progress is automatically displayed for your friends to see. I am not sure whether this is a help or a distraction in my case, too early to be sure.

A limited review, I know but I am only three days into it and so far only Spanish. I will probably try French next, time permitting. Overall: very impressed and I would recommend Duolingo to any keen language learner. The sooner you get on the waiting list the better.

18 March 2012

Words are like delicate plants, they need to be nurtured

Memrise screenshot

Here is a new website (new to me anyway) that I have been playing with for a couple of weeks. It is called Memrise and it makes vocabulary memorising into a game. You are presented with a garden for each language and invited to plant 5 seedlings (words) that you then have to water (practice) at intervals until they are ready to harvest. The program suggests mnemonics that are sometimes helpful in remembering new words. If you forget to water your seedlings you get an email reminder that they are wilting (shades of Tamigotchi). You can plant new seedlings in groups of 5 whenever you want, it depends how much time you want to spend on it. Above is a screenshot showing some seedlings ready to water.

You sign up for free and select what language/s you want to study. I chose Spanish, French and Hungarian (don’t ask). Here is my dashboard showing my current status.

Memrise dashboard

It is a type of spaced repetition drill but the graphics and the garden game make it fun and keep you coming back for more. Each time you water your plants you get points for correct answers and the total is added to your profile. It was encouraging for me to go from a ranking of 12,050 to 6,800 (in the world) in about half an hour.

The graphics are simple and quite engaging. When you click on a word you are supposed to hear it: this doesn’t always work. Sometimes the pages are slow to refresh. Apart from that no gripes, its free and it makes studying fun. Give it a try and tell me what you think of it …

4 October 2011

Turn your novel into a multi media experience

I just finished reading a book called Dark Tangos, by Lewis Shiner. I enjoyed the story, without spoiling it is set in Buenos Aires and is contemporary. The thing I did that was different was to follow up on some of the references to music, places and themes that I met while reading the novel. For example when he mentioned a tango by Caló called "que falta que me haces" I went to YouTube and found a recording of the music. When he mentioned Lezama Park I went to google maps and found a slide show. I was able to follow his journeys through Buenos Aires with google maps (disappointingly without streetview – yet!). And thanks to google maps I now realise how close Buenos Aires is to Uraguay.So this has become my "must share" idea. Grab a novel set in a country of your choice. Follow up on any references to places and journeys with google maps and get some music from YouTube. Simple I know but this is the first time I have done it …

Almost forgot to mention that Dark Tangos is available as a free pdf. Download it here

12 June 2011

Open University: learning a foreign language - is the OU better than evening classes

Question from a reader

"I hope you don’t mind my contacting you. I have read your interesting blog. I came across the sentence "the OU is trundling off in its own direction and making it hard for students like me to stay with them.".

Can I ask you how/why you feel this way? Is it expense, or quality of teaching, or what? I am seriously thinking of embarking on one or two language modules with the OU, and am interested in your views on whether they are as good or better than the conventional evening classes or even just ‘teach yourself’ books. I should add that I do have (ancient) O level passes in the languages I’m interested in, so I will not be a complete beginner…well, maybe not! Thanks for any help you can give."

25 May 2011

Forgetting a language

I enjoyed reading this blog post from Benny who is an expert on language acquisition and an inspiration to anyone who follows the polyglot trail.

I found myself nodding in agreement at several points. The languages that stick are the ones where you have emotional investment, that is why I have "forgotten" Norwegian, Italian and Welsh but so far, clung onto French and Spanish: they are the (only) languages that some of my friends speak. It’s obvious really, but for me seeing it written down made me realise it for the first time. So the message is clear, having got to conversational level I need to speak, read and think in English, French and Spanish every day, and all will be well.

17 February 2011

Excuse me did I hear you speaking Spanish

One of the first things my new Spanish teacher said to the class was that we should always try to start a conversation whenever we heard someone speaking Spanish in a shop or on a train or wherever. I thought at the time that sounded like a good idea, in principle! This topic has just been aired on the "about Spanish" group and the consensus is … well see for yourself.

Most people seem to agree that its a good idea to initiate a converation but like most things in life, a smile and a bit of humility will go a long way when talking to strangers.


Bill Ferguson
Bill Ferguson

Spanish Teaching Resources

Getting good quality teaching and resources

The information I am going to share is an honest account of what I have tried over the past year and my opinions are just that, opinions. I will share my likes and dislikes, what works for me and what doesn't. This is a personal experience, I am not an expert but if you share my ambition of learning to communicate in a third, foreign language, then maybe we can help each other along the way.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche: "One who speaks a foreign language just a little takes more pleasure in it than one who speaks it well. Enjoyment belongs to those who know things halfway."

I think he is right. Its hard to define halfway but I think the fun starts when you know enough of a language to be able to make yourself understood, given sufficient time to think. At this stage you are not merely tolerated but treated as an honoured guest in a foreign country. People see you bravely struggling to speak and understand, and give you credit for trying. They are nearly always kind and supportive.

Go beyond this to fluency and its like a toddler growing up, you are no longer cute and vulnerable. You are competing for resources, in the adolescence of language acquisition unless you have a definite role you are treated with suspicion. Maybe that is the stage to consider moving on to another new language ...

Getting good quality teaching and resources is vital to success: encouraged by an influential book by Harry Ferber I now view language acquisition as a military campaign, I need to use my resources efficiently to overcome all resistance, I need to capture vocabulary and not let it escape. I need to wear down the opposition by attacking daily and not allowing it time to regroup. I need to learn the predictable tricks that the new language will play on me and be ready for them (this means learning grammar). Like any military campaign good quality intelligence is vital.

Learning a Third Language

My current ambition is to be able to communicate comfortably in English, French and Spanish. I began to study Spanish in 2008. I have been a student of French, on and off, for about 30 years and up to last year ....read more

Strategic Planning

When I started to think about taking on a third language I realised I had two main worries: firstly I didn't want to lose my second language ...read more

Fear of Losing French

As I see it there is a simple choice ....read more