Doing Saturday

Since my visit to Catalonia last August, I have been working quite a bit, if not entirely steadily, on my Spanish, and also having a go at learning some Catalan.

I will shortly be going out there again for another visit, so it will be a good opportunity to assess how much I’ve learned in the past 14 months.  My feeling is that it will turn out to be quite a lot, though there’s still much more to learn of both languages.

When I first started trying to learn Spanish, just over 20 years ago, it was from a book entitled (rather optimistically) Spanish in Three Months.  Suffice it to say that it took me somewhat more than 3 months to get through the book – in fact, I didn’t get round to systematically working through all the chapters until some time after my last visit to Spain.  I don’t suppose many people would buy a book called Spanish in Twenty Years and, to be fair, I don’t think the author or publishers can be blamed for the amount of time it took me to finish the book.  In fact, I’ve used quite a few different resources in my quest to learn Spanish and in many respects this book is probably one of my favourites (though I think that any study of something as complex as a language really needs to make use of multiple sources of information).

After getting back from Catalonia last year, I initially decided that I would concentrate on improving my Spanish for several months, if not years, before taking more than a cursory look at Catalan, but I quickly acquired several Catalan books so that I’d be prepared when the time came.  One of these was Catalan in Three Months, a sister to my first Spanish book.  Several times over the last year I have dipped into this book but about a month ago I decided to systematically work through it (tackling the exercises and writing down vocabulary, etc.) and this time I was able to reach the end within about a fortnight.  Admittedly, it’s a slightly shorter book than the other one (or at least breaks its material into fewer chapters) and I was going at a slightly too fast pace in order to get a broad overview of the language, so I haven’t fully assimilated a lot of the grammar or vocabulary (though the same can be said of Spanish, which I’ve been working at for a lot longer).

The fact that I already knew a reasonable amount of Spanish also helped me to work through the Catalan book much more quickly as, while there are many significant differences between the two languages, there is also a lot of overlap so I had a big headstart in terms of getting to grips with the basic nuts and bolts of the language.  Having a reasonable, if rather rusty, command of French helped quite a bit too, since Catalan falls somewhere between French and Spanish linguistically as well as geographically.

As I was approaching the end of Catalan in Three Months, I had a look round to see what other Catalan resources were available and I came across one in the Dummies series of books that I’ve previously found useful for getting a handle on things ranging from knitting to quantum mechanics.  The twist here was that the book was written in Spanish, and there doesn’t seem to be an English version available.  Still, I reasoned that this might be quite a good way of consolidating my grasp on Spanish as well as learning a bit more Catalan (and, significantly, some more about the culture, which was rather lacking in the other book), so I purchased myself an e-book version of Catalán Para Dummies and have gradually been working my way through it.

Amongst the things I’ve learned from studying this book are the following two gems that I wanted to make a note of:

Firstly, the Catalan word for a pestle (as in pestle & mortar) is, apparently, la mà de morter, which means “the hand of the mortar”.  Apart from being quite poetic, I find this useful because I’ve always had trouble remembering which one is the pestle and which one is the mortar.  Somehow I find the idea of thinking of the pestle as the hand of the mortar seems to make it easier to remember that it is the one shaped roughly like a small club (or perhaps an arm with a fist on the end of it), while the mortar is the bowl shaped bit.  Incidentally, I gather that the Spanish is similar (el mortero for mortar and la mano for pestle, although both Spanish and Catalan seem to have at least one other word – el pilón / el piló respectively – for the latter).

Secondly, there is a lovely Catalan idiom – fer dissabte (literally, “to make/do Saturday”) – which essentially refers to pottering round the house, doing cleaning and such other tasks as are often done on Saturdays but may equally be done at other times when you’re at home rather than out at work.  Another source I found (also in Spanish – I’ve not yet managed to track down any in English) to explain this phrase seems to suggest that it’s more about an intensive cleaning session rather than pottering around.  In either case, it’s based around the home and not necessarily confined to Saturday.  A literal translation into Spanish would be hacer sábado but this would, apparently, make as much sense as “to do Saturday” in English, so it is a Catalan-only idiom (but it joins the likes of the German word ausschlafen – literally “to sleep out” but meaning to sleep until you wake up naturally, rather than using an alarm – on my list of words or phrases that we really ought to adopt into English).

Technology-assisted language learning #1

Recently I’ve been quite busy with language-learning related stuff (mostly Spanish, but also bits of several other languages) and I’ve been exploring some technological aids to help me.

My previous language learning efforts have mostly focused on traditional media such as books and tapes/CDs, although I have made a fair amount of use of things like flashcard software (Anki is my favourite) and internet radio stations.

In the past couple of years, I have explored some of the language apps available for my Android phone.  However, this is a device of fairly limited capacity running on an old version of the Android OS (2.something) so there were several apps I’d heard of from friends (including Simon who runs the Omniglot website) and other sources that I wanted to check out but couldn’t get to run on my phone.

A few weeks ago I got myself a reconditioned Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 tablet.  This has a much beefier processor than my phone, as well as a lot more memory and storage space, and runs Android 4 (the wonderfully named Ice Cream Sandwich), so should have no trouble running the pick of the current crop of apps, language-related or otherwise.

Since then I’ve been trying out several different apps for Spanish and other languages.  I will probably write about some of them in forthcoming posts.  For now, though, I want to talk about the latest one I’ve been checking out: Duolingo, which exists as both a website and an Android app (I think there’s also an iPhone version).

As far as I can make out, Duolingo is basically a community-driven project.   On their website I found the slogan “We believe everyone should have access to education of the highest quality – for free”, which is a sentiment I share.  As the name suggests, their particular focus is on language education.  They provide courses in a variety of languages, both as source (the language via which instruction is given) and target (the language you’re learning).

A couple of the friends with whom I went to Spain in August used Duolingo to pick up a bit of Spanish in advance of our trip (the most notable result of which was one of them declaring “Yo soy una manzana”, which means “I am an apple”) and have been continuing to use it since then.  At the time, I didn’t check it out myself, partly because I didn’t have my tablet and didn’t know if my phone could handle it (nor that there was a website interface) and partly because I mistakenly assumed it would only be a beginner level course that wouldn’t have anything useful to teach me.

Yesterday, I got round to installing Duolingo on my tablet for a closer look and I was pleasantly surprised.  There are courses for English-speakers on about 8 or 9 languages at present (though a few of them only seem to be available via the website), as well as courses aimed at speakers of other languages.  One nice feature is that when you start a course you can either go from the beginning or take a placement test to assess your existing level of knowledge of the target language and fast-track you to a suitable starting point.

Out of curiosity (and a desire to learn/improve all the languages I can) I started the courses not only for Spanish but also French, German, Dutch, Italian and Irish, opting for the placement test in each case.

I was quite gratified to reach Level 10 in Spanish (I’m not sure how many levels there are, and it may vary between languages, but I seem to have ended up about three quarters of the way through the available units, and poised ready to start a lesson on the subjunctive).   There seems to be a reasonable variety of different lessons and exercises, with a combination of reading, writing, listening and even speaking, so I expect that working my way through the rest of the course should be quite useful. Apparently it is based on a generalised Latin American version of Spanish, in contrast to the peninsular Spanish focus of most of the instructional material I’ve used to date, but I don’t think that should be too much of a problem.

Given that I still consider my French to be a lot stronger than my Spanish (and I can generally string together a vaguely correct sentence in French much more easily than in Spanish) I was moderately surprised that I only reached Level 7 in French.  This is probably largely due to mistakes with accents, which are generally much harder in French than Spanish (as there are more to choose from and they aren’t always entirely obvious from pronunciation) as well as the fact I’ve done a lot more writing in Spanish than French recently (I think it was mostly the written exercises that let me down in the French test).

In German, I achieved Level 5 – not too surprising considering my German was never quite as strong as my French (though in theory I studied them to the same level) and is much rustier.  I was pleasantly surprised to get up to Level 3 in Dutch since, although it’s less than a year since I last had a go at learning it, I didn’t get very far in my lessons then. Both my Irish and my Italian are languishing down at Level 1.

My main goal remains to focus primarily on Spanish for the moment but also to do some gentle revision of French and German and probably do a bit of Dutch, using Duolingo alongside various other tools for each language.  Doubtless I’ll do at least a bit with both Irish and Italian too, although those are definitely lower priorities at the moment.

Amongst the other languages apparently in development (for English-medium courses) on Duolingo are Swedish, Russian and Hungarian.  All three have for some time been on my shortlist of languages to work on (I speak some Russian, though considerably less than German or French, and a little bit of Hungarian, though only a negligible amount of Swedish as yet), so I’m looking forward to trying out those languages when they go live.

There’s no sign, yet, of any courses in English for non-Indo-European languages on Duolingo, which is a shame as I’d definitely like to break further out of the Eurocentric mould in my language studies (Swahili being the non-IE language that interests me most, though there are plenty of others).  For now, at least, it looks like I’ll have to stick with other tools for explorations in that direction, as well as for IE languages such as Catalan that are not on the Duolingo menu.  However, for the languages that are available I think Duolingo will be a very handy addition to the toolbox.