Thursday, September 18, 2014

Doing Duolingo

This is Duo. He nags.
(And is © Duolingo)
I’ve been lax on writing about studying Hebrew lately. Partly because I haven’t though of anything interesting to say about it, but mostly because the language at which I’m a good deal more practiced has captured my attention again. Le français est dans mon coeur.

Sorry Hebrew, but French remains my first, if no longer my best foreign language.[1] For foreign languages, it’s certainly my first love.[2] While I haven’t given up on studying Hebrew in Rosetta Stone, I’m brushing up on my French with Duolingo. If I worked for, or owned stock in, Rosetta Stone, Duolingo would worry me. Correction: Duolingo would scare the fuck out of me if I had money in Rosetta Stone.[3]

Hey, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone never nags me! Good job! Duolingo e-mails me and send status messages on my iPad to remind me that I haven’t studied my French that day. Oui, maman, je le ferai. Duolingo does have the advantage of getting me at a much higher level, so the exercises I’m doing in Duolingo are, for the most part, refresher. I started studying French at twelve and have kept on with it, more or less, over the last forty years.[4] I’ve studied some Hebrew, but forget saying anything complex in it.[5]

Further, while Rosetta Stone did upgrade my copy of Rosetta Stone Hebrew to a newer interface, if I want to use their iPad app, I need to buy access. A quick check of Rosetta Course (the iPad app) shows that some aspects of the course aren't even available on the iPad, so the only way for me to use Rosetta Stone is on my computer. The computer is a bit of a problem. You don’t really think I’m using Duolingo on my computer, do you?

I had heard about it for a while, but hadn’t even looked at it. Then a friend said that she was using Duolingo to improve her German. She loved it, so I decided to try it. Currently, they’re only offering French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. No Hebrew. No Esperanto.[6] Rosetta Stone wins out on variety of languages, though they also have no Esperanto, either.[7]

Here’s the problem: to use Rosetta Stone, I need to disconnect the stuff that’s using my USB ports (my backup drives) and hook in my headset. Rosetta Stone is so particular on pronunciation that even things that should (if you ask me) pass muster, don’t. When I have to repeat “ha dag adom[8] several times, never hitting it more accurately than the first time, I have to wonder how great the speech recognition is.

It's totally stringent about practicing, though.
Teachers don't care this much.
On the other hand, Duolingo often seems to work on a much less stringent regime. I have, on occasion,[9] messed up a phrase (typically swapping le with ce or la with ça) and yet Duolingo gives me the points. Maybe it just figures, “screw it, they’ll understand him on the streets of Paris.” For that matter, the distinction between “do you know the building” and “do you know that building” are fairly small, so maybe it’s giving me a pass, though other times it does seem to accept fairly flubbed speech. (Once, James didn’t realize that I was talking to the iPad and asked me a question, stopping me mid-phrase. I still got the point.)

That said, there are portions of Duolingo that I wonder about. The app doesn’t do any explanation before the drill, and some of the drills are stupidly easy (when there’s only one capitalized word, guess what you choose first?).[10] But it makes me put sentences together, and that’s a good thing.
It’s clear that as I keep going, things are only going to get more difficult. Even though I have taken years of French, I have a long way to go before I hit the end of Duolingo. It’s been good practice though, and it has reminded me of how much my French has slipped through years of disuse. As for my German, Duolingo placed me as a rank beginner.

But there’s so much that works in Duolingo, right down to the Lingots, the in-game currency you can only get by learning language and can only spend on in-game things (once I had 30, I “bought” French idioms). It feels so good every time I earn one.

This review is probably a little premature, since there are aspects of Duolingo I haven’t checked out yet (in part because they’re on the web site, and I like to do Duolingo on my iPad[11]). I haven’t done any translation yet, even though my skills at understanding French far outstrip my abilities for generating it (there’s at least one point where all those French lessons come back to mind). Soon.

Gotta keep on track!
So, keep nagging me, Duolingo. And maybe the next time I’m in Europe, I won’t get tongue tied dealing with a simple transaction (which is particularly embarrassing, given that I know I can still read French newspapers and magazines). And at some point in the near future, I’ll probably add in Italian. Though at that point, I may have to cut back on the speed at which I learn any one language.

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  1. Esperanto has gained that honor. Tio estas domaĝo por la franca. (I’m not going to translate, because I have the sneaking suspicion that if I really wanted to up my page reads, I would publish in Esperanto. Ŝajnas ke la ne-esperantistoj estas aĉuloj. So why don’t I post in Esperanto? While I might do some posting in Esperanto (maybe even without English translation), Esperanto doesn’t suit my needs as much as English does.  ↩
  2. Mi pardonpetas, Esperanto, sed, estas vera. Mia koro apartenas la la franca.  ↩
  3. Rosetta Stone knows this and has bought a stake in LiveMocha. I tried LiveMocha for a bit, until I realized that I was spending more time correcting the English of Brazilians than improving my own language skills.  ↩
  4. What really kills me is that Bertilo Wennergren, a member of the Akademio de Esperanto started studying Esperanto just one year before I did. I’m an okay Esperantist. Bertilo is the expert on Esperanto grammar and usage. He’s corrected my usage on Facebook a couple of times; it’s a mix of shame and honor.  ↩
  5. When I was finishing my degree, I had to take a class in French literature given in French. Basically upper div French for French majors, despite being an English major. At then end of my class, one of my classmates (a French major) complimented me on my skills at French. I said (and still think) that my secret was knowing what I wanted to say and being stubborn enough to find a way—any way—to say it.

    Actually, one of my great triumphs was when we were discussing the novel Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant. The professor wanted to know what the opening of the novel said about love.

    “Rien,” (nothing) I said. The professor pointed out that the opening was about love.

    “Non, c’est apropos de le charme d’armour. Ce n’est pas la même chose.” (No, it’s about the charm of love. It’s not the same thing.) Point made. I then went on to point that while Adolphe finds love charming, he does not actually reciprocate, making loving him fatal.

    It was easy to explain in fairly basic French.  ↩
  6. Word has it that Esperanto is coming to Duolingo. It’s going to be incredible.  ↩
  7. Esperanto is sufficiently simple that completion of Rosetta Stone Esperanto, level 3 ought to qualify you for membership in the Akademio de Esperanto.  ↩
  8. The fish is red.  ↩
  9. That means “more often than I want to admit to.”  ↩
  10. That’s less a giveaway in German, of course, since they capitalize their Nouns. (Originally, I wrote "Verbs" for no readily apparent reason. Nouns. Verbs. Adjectives. The Germans capitalize Shit that they don't Need to. It's a habit they took from the British, who sensibly dropped it.)  ↩
  11. This is another case where the iPad version should contain everything you can do in a browser (and maybe more).  ↩

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  1. Capitalize their verbs? Surely you mean nouns, right?

    1. Yes, I mean Nouns. Please see the updated version of footnote 10.

      Also thank you for confirming that someone reads my footnotes.

  2. Thanks for the mini-review of Duolingo—I've heard about it for a while, but have never tried it.


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