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.



Two Horses

As cars go, the Citroën 2CV is one that is quite close to my heart.

In general I’m not that interested in cars but I’ve always quite liked the 2CV mainly, I think, for reasons of nostalgia since one of these (in a lovely pea green colour) was our family car throughout the early years of my life.   I think my parents got it fairly shortly before I was born and we had it until I was about 6 or 7, as I recall.

Apart from the colour of our 2CV, things I remember with particular fondness include the canvas top that could be rolled back in fine weather, the hand-crank that could be used to start it as an alternative to the ignition key (which, as I recall, we never actually needed to use though I did enjoy the rare occasions when my dad would demonstrate this capability) and the fake-leather seat upholstery that got painfully hot (especially if you were wearing shorts) when the sun shone.  OK, so fondness is probably not the appropriate word for that last recollection but it certainly burned itself well into my mind, not to mention my legs.

As far as I’m aware, the name 2CV came from the French phrase deux chevaux, meaning two horses or, in this context, two horsepower – a description of the power of the car’s engine.  I’m fairly sure that deux chevaux was the first phrase of French I ever learned, although it would probably be exaggerating to say that this did very much to fuel my lifelong interest in languages.  (Speaking of fuel, I seem to recall that our Citroën used 3-star petrol, which I haven’t seen on sale for several decades now.)

I had a friend at university 12 or so years ago who used to drive a 2CV.  While helping him to bump start it one time, I discovered that the car’s body is made from incredibly soft metal that would visibly distort when you pushed against it.  I suspect it probably wouldn’t offer too much protection in the event of a crash, but I tried not to think too much about that while my friend was subsequently giving me a lift down the A55.

The reason I mention all this, or rather the reason I’ve been thinking about the 2CV today is that, after not having seen one for quite some time (several years, at least, I think) I saw two yesterday.  Both were the same colour (off-white / cream) but I’m fairly sure they were different vehicles as one was definitely a left-hand drive vehicle with French plates, being driven by a young-looking (and also rather nice looking, I might add) woman while the other was, I’m fairly sure right-hand drive and being driven by a bloke with a fairly impressive beard, who appeared to be enjoying the afternoon sunshine with the top of the car rolled down and a big smile on his face. I say that I’m fairly sure because I saw this one first (by several hours) and didn’t take particular note of what side the steering wheel was on; I would think that the very fact I didn’t notice it suggests that it was probably on the usual side for cars on British roads.

El regreso del invierno

I’ve just looked out of my window and noticed that it is snowing.  I gather much of the rest of the country has been enjoying (or at least experiencing) snow for the past few days but round here we’ve just had rain (and a sort of rain/hail hybrid for a while last night).  The snow doesn’t seem to be settling, at least for now, but what’s falling from the sky is definitely snow rather than rain.

This simple meteorological observation brings me back to some poetical and (vaguely) philosophical musings that have been on my mind  recently.  I’ve just looked out of my window and noticed that it is snowing. I gather much of the rest of the country has been enjoying (or at least experiencing) snow for the past few days but round here, we’ve just had rain (and a sort of rain/hail hybrid for a while last night). The snow doesn’t seem to be settling, at least for now, but what’s falling from the sky is definitely snow rather than rain.

A couple of weeks ago my brother, Wulf, who is evidently a bit of a closet poet like me, blogged about a short poem he’d written on the return of winter.  The poem itself runs:

Who invited winter back to sup
At dawning summer’s promised cup?

It is, however, worth visiting the original blog post (which is also pretty short), as the sentence introducing the poem itself is also quite poetical in its imagery (albeit written in prose).  Incidentally, the title of my post is “the return of Winter” in Spanish, for no particular reason.

I’m not sure if it was reading that poem or talking to somebody else about the Canterbury Tales, or possibly a combination of both, that has led me to think several times over the past few weeks about the first couple of lines of the General Prologue.  Although I’m fairly familiar with a fairly large chunk of the Canterbury Tales (I’d estimate that I’ve probably read about half of them and know a handful of them pretty well), there are very few lines that I know by heart.  Amongst these are the lines which open the whole thing:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…

As Middle English goes, those lines are fairly easy to understand but, in case you don’t dig the funky spelling, a modern paraphrase is “When April with its sweet showers / has pierced the drought of March to the root…”.  This suggests that in Chaucer’s time (the end of the 14th Century), March was a generally dry month in the South East of England and April was a wet one.  Of course, this same rule of thumb may not necessarily be expected to apply several hundred years later in North Wales (especially the dry part!) but we do often seem to get quite good weather in March.  This time last year, as I recall, we were going through a mini heatwave.  This year, we had particularly fine weather through much of February and it has turned quite wintry through March.  It had, however, managed to stay mostly dry until this last week but it seems that the sweet April showers have arrived a little prematurely.

Finally, I started reading an anthology of French poetry this morning and the very first poem, by Charles d’Orléans (who was roughly contemporary with Chaucer, though a few years younger), gives us something to look forward to (hopefully soon) once the current reprise of winter has run its course.  It begins like this:

Le temps a laissié son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluye,
Et s’est vestu de brouderie,
De soleil luyant, cler et beau.

Although that’s in fairly early Middle French (probably roughly to modern French what Chaucer’s English is to modern English), it should be reasonably easy to understand for anyone with a moderate grasp of French.  For the benefit of anyone else reading this, here’s a translation (the one from my bilingual anthology – Introduction to French Poetry by Stanley Appelbaum (Dover, 1969) – which doesn’t seem to list the translators; it could well be the work of Appelbaum himself):

The season has shed its mantle
Of wind, cold and rain,
And has clothed itself in embroidery,
In gleaming sunshine, bright and fair.

Pons asinorum

I recently discovered a draft of a blog post I started to write nearly a year ago, shortly after my previous post on the subject of Euclidean geometry.  I’m not sure why I didn’t publish it at the time (possibly because I was planning to extend it in some now-forgotten direction).  Here it is now, with minimal editing:

Undoubtedly the most famous proposition in Euclid’s Elements is I-47 (that is, the 47th proposition in book I), better known as Pythagoras’ Theorem.  This, as you probably know (though you may not have known its number in Euclid), is the statement that the square of the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is the sum of the squares on the other two sides.

Perhaps the second most famous one, although certainly having nothing like the same level of recognition among non-mathematicians, is I-5, which states that the two angles at the base of an isosceles triangle (i.e. one having two sides of the same length)  are equal.  Like Pythagoras’ theorem and unlike most of Euclid’s other propositions, this one has a name.  In fact, it has been known by several names, but the most popular is pons asinorum – the bridge of asses (in Latin).

There are at least two competing explanations as to the origin of this name.   One is that this is the first proposition in the Elements that might cause some people difficulty in understanding, as well as being quite necessary for the proof of many of the later propositions, so that it functions as a kind of figurative bridge that ignorant people (considered to be donkeys) are unable to cross to allow them further into the study of geometry.  Another, rather more complimentary to donkeys, is that the diagram of the construction given in Euclid’s proof resembles a steep-sided bridge that horses would have difficulty climbing but sure-footed donkeys would have no trouble with.

Interestingly, while pons asinorum is used in the English-speaking mathematical world to refer to Euclid I-5, it is apparently used in the French-speaking world to refer to I-47, i.e. Pythagoras’ Theorem.

Malwod noeth

Last night I went for my second meeting of the Bangor Polyglots (their third meeting overall).

When I first arrived, shortly after my brass band practice had finished, the only people already there were the three from last week; I don’t know if anyone else had been and gone before I got there.  I was able to greet both Rhian and Sam in Icelandic, as I’ve been working through a free online course that Sam pointed me to last week.  However, I haven’t yet got as far as learning the plural forms of the greetings, so I had to greet them individually.

Fairly shortly after I arrived we were joined by Edith, who is from Germany and teaches German through the medium of Welsh at Bangor University.  She speaks several other languages in addition to German, Welsh and English, including Finnish, Icelandic and French, and she’s planning soon to add Greek to the list.  As well as the modern languages, she has a good knowledge of Old Norse and Middle Welsh (and, I suspect, probably a few other archaic languages too).  She’s from the southern part of Germany and speaks the local Swabian dialect in addition to standard HIgh German (in fact, I think she was only half joking – if at all – when she said that German was her first foreign language).

A bit later we were joined by Jochen, who is also German, works at the university (in the music department) and speaks several languages to a high standard.  I have met Jochen several times on the local music scene, although we have never previously spoken to each other at great length.  He brought with him a girl from Paris who is over here to do a gig with him (she’s a singer).  Unfortunately I didn’t catch her name, or at least didn’t manage to make it stick in my memory, and since we were at opposite ends of the table I didn’t get much chance to speak to her.

Once everyone was there, we got a truly multilingual conversation going, with usually at least two threads running concurrently and languages being mixed freely.  French and German seemed to dominate, with a fairly healthy amount of Welsh and relatively little English.  Bits of other languages were used or spoken about, with a particular emphasis on Finnish in the discussion at my end of the table (and I also threw in a bit of Hungarian – which is similarly structured to Finnish but somewhat more familiar to me, although my knowledge of it is still extremely rudimentary – for comparison).

Last week, I learned that the Cornish word for snail is bulhorn, which has immediately become my favourite word for snail that I’ve so far discovered in any language and will probably retain that position for quite some time.  It is quite different from the Welsh word, malwoden, and while I don’t know the etymology of either word it seems obvious (and may well indeed be true) that they come from totally different roots.  This week there was some further discussion about snails and I learned (or possibly relearned, as it’s likely to be a word I once knew and had forgotten) that the German for snail is die Schnecke.  Even better, the German for slug is Nacktschnecke, which literally means “naked snail”.  I still loathe slugs, and resent the devastation they regularly wreak on my attempts to grow pretty much anything in my garden, but I think that’s a cool name for them.

I’m looking forward to many more meetings with the Bangor Polyglots.  The only trouble is that there are so many languages to learn and so little time to do it.

Hello, bonsoir & croeso

I recently joined a new group on Facebook called Bangor Polyglots.  As the name suggests, this is for people based in the Bangor area (that’s the one in North West Wales rather than any of the many others around the world) who speak several languages and have a strong interest in language in general.   As you might also guess from the fact that the name specifies a geographical location, this is intended to be a group that has face-to-face meetings rather than just existing in cyberspace.
The group only began to meet a fortnight ago and, at the moment, they meet on Monday evenings at one of the pubs in Bangor (the Ship Launch, down near the pier).  This is unfortunate for me, since on Monday evenings I have rehearsals with the Menai Bridge Band.  However, I discovered after the first meeting that they go on fairly late (until around 11pm), which gives me a chance to get across after the band practice (which finishes at 9).  Since the weather was fine (albeit cold) last night and I wasn’t feeling too tired, I cycled across to meet the others for the first time last night.

As it happens, there were only 3 other people there (though apparently there had also been one other person there earlier), one of whom I already know, so it wasn’t too daunting to join in the meeting.

One of those present was Simon, the organiser of the group (and the one I already knew).  He is also the creator and maintainer of the Omniglot website – an online encylopedia of languages and writing systems.  I first came across this fascinating website some time before Simon moved to Bangor so I was delighted when I met him a few years back and discovered that he was the man behind it.  He speaks several languages to a high standard and has a particular interest in the Celtic languages.   He’s also learning Russian, which I studied for a while (as a subsidiary subject) at university (far too many years ago).

The other two people there are, I gather, both students.  I think Rhian is studying linguistics and Sam is studying German (with a bit of Dutch on the side).  They both speak Welsh and Cornish, as well as several other languages.

Last night’s general conversation was mostly in a fairly free mix of Welsh and English.  I also had a bit of a chat with Simon in French and Russian and we all threw bits of quite a few other languages into the mix too, so it definitely qualified as a meeting of polyglots.  One of the notable topics of conversation was the notion of cellar doors, as propounded (though apparently not originated) by J. R. R. Tolkien.  Both Rhian and I were delighted to find somebody else (i.e. each other) who was familiar with this concept and we had great fun explaining it to the others and then all coming up with our own cellar doors in various languages (if you’ve no idea what I’m talking about you may want to check out the link in the previous sentence to Simon’s blog, where he has written about cellar doors today).  We also spent some time discussing compound words in German (and trying to make up some of our own, then translate them into Welsh), the Welsh translation of “passion fruit” (which none of us knew – I looked it up later and apparently it’s granadila, which is very similar to the French grenadille) and the current state of the various different proposals for a standard dialect of modern Cornish (a scene which appears to be even more fragmented than when I last seriously looked at it several years ago, when there were three main claimants for the title).

I did manage to get an answer for a question that’s been bugging me (slightly) for a couple of weeks.  A friend and I were discussing corgis (the small Welsh dogs beloved of Queen Elizabeth) and we couldn’t remember the meaning of the word.  It is a Welsh compound word, breaking down to cor + gi (< ci = dog) but we couldn’t remember what cor meant.  We did flippantly speculate that it could be côr = choir, which would make corgis dogs that sing in choirs.  🙂 However, it turns out (as Rhian reminded me last night) that cor is a synonym or abbreviation (I’m not sure which) of corrach = dwarf, so a corgi is actually a dwarf dog (not a bad description, really).

All told, I had a very pleasant evening with my fellow polyglots.  I’ll probably try and get across for the meetings (or at least the last part of them) whenever possible (which will probably be based on what the weather’s like and whether I’m feeling sufficiently energetic to cycle there and back).  I hope that this will help me to polish my French and Russian (and Welsh, for that matter) and perhaps learn a bit more Cornish and a few odds and ends of other languages.



Bonne idée in theory

The other day, while I was searching for a completely different Google Chrome extension, I came across an interesting one called Language Immersion for Chrome, which had the intriguing strapline “learn a new language while you browse the web”.

It describes itself as “an experimental extension that aims to simulate the experience of being immersed in a foreign language” and is powered by Google Translate.  It  works by translating certain words and phrases on any webpage into the target language of your choice (any of the 60 or so supported by Google Translate), substituting the translated phrase for the original on the page (it highlights the translated bits so you can spot them more easily) .  For instance, if you had la langue set to French vous pouvez see something comme this.   The context of the surrounding words in a language you can speak (I’m not sure if it only works for pages in English or for other source languages) enables you to grasp the meaning and the repeated exposure helps to cement the word in your head.  I think it is supposed to mimic, to some extent, the way that children naturally acquire language more-or-less by osmosis rather than sitting down to memorise long vocabulary lists.

The tool offers a couple of extra features, which are selectable as options.  One is the ability to click on a highlighted/translated phrase to revert it to the original language, enabling you to check your understanding; this feature is reversible, so you can click again to get the translated version back.  The other facility is the ability to hover over the phrase and hear an audio clip of it being spoken, handy if you want to work on your pronunciation.  Also, the tool enables you to specify your fluency level in the target language (on a sliding scale from “novice” to “fluent”), which alters the proportion of the page to be translated and possibly also the choice of the words translated (though I assume the words are selected pretty much at random and if it can’t find a translation for a particular word or phrase it picks another one nearby and tries again; I doubt it maintains lists of approved phrases to translate for each language and level).

So far that sounds like a pretty useful tool.  Unfortunately there are a couple of reasons why it didn’t work altogether smoothly and why, in consequence, I’ve removed it from my browser at least for now.  It takes a while to load the translations and the audio feature only seems to be available for certain languages and can be quite slow to kick in even with those ones.  There is also, of course, the problem of the inherent inaccuracy of a machine translation in the first place. I  spotted plenty of mistakes when I tried the tool using Welsh (which I speak quite fluently) and French (rusty but passable) so I’m sure there are also lots of mistranslations in the other languages.

To some extent those problems may get alleviated, although probably never solved entirely (especially the machine translation issue) as the software (both the extension and the GT backend) continues to be developed.  However, I don’t know whether I will use it again in any case.  I’m not sure of the pedagogic value of inserting random phrases from another language into a stream of text; it may be quite handy for reviewing and extending vocabulary but doesn’t necessarily offer any great benefits over more traditional tools like flashcards, and it doesn’t show you how to actually use the words idiomatically in the target language.

I think I’m more likely to get benefit from continuing to look at websites in the languages I’m trying to learn (when available – there aren’t that many written in ancient Greek!). Google Translate can be quite a handy tool for checking understanding of specific words and phrases with this approach, especially as there are several browser extensions available that let you select some text and get a translation immediately; however, I generally prefer to try and read to get a general idea of the gist of a passage without getting too bogged down in the details of individual words.  As with the language immersion extension, the surrounding text often helps you to get an understanding of an unfamiliar word, but if the surrounding text is also in the target language that gives you a much better feel of how the word fits in context.

I suppose it may be interesting to start trying to learn a more-or-less completely unfamiliar language (for which trying to read a website entirely in that language may be too much) with the immersion tool and then switch to (or at least supplement with) websites in the target language once I begin to acquire sufficient vocabulary.   This might be helpful as part of an attempt to learn a language but I suspect that it would work better in conjunction with other language-learning tools than trying to use it on its own.