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.


Rice is nice…

My latest experiment in noodlesprucing, a couple of days ago, resulted in a very tasty rice dish with a Hungarian twist.

I wanted to knock up a quick meal of rice and not have to worry about preparing external sauces or stuff like that, as I had limited time and several other things that needed to be done.  It occurred to me that, just as rice can be tweaked with the addition of a bit of turmeric (or saffron if your budget will stretch to it) – mostly for colour effect – other seasonings could probably be added at the start of cooking to infuse both colour and flavour.

Digging not too far into my spice collection I came across a packet of Vegeta that Eszter, my Hungarian former housemate, gave me when she left last year.  I first came across Vegeta on my trip to Hungary half a dozen years ago.  It is a condiment that, apparently, originated in Croatia but is very popular in Hungary and (as far as I know) other parts of eastern Europe.  It consists mostly of salt, with powdered dehydrated vegetables (including carrot, onion and celery), MSG and spices (the exact mix of those not being divulged in the Wikipedia article or, as far as I can tell, on the packet – though mine is all in Hungarian and I don’t know it well enough to be sure).

Incidentally, the Vegeta packet gave me a memorable lesson in the importance of correct pronunciation in Hungarian, especially with regard to paying attention to diacritics.  When Eszter was still around I was trying to read aloud the ingredients list from the back of the packet (which, at the time, was still hers) while she was cooking one evening.  I got to the word zöldség, which I correctly identified as meaning “vegetables” – mainly from remembering that zöld means “green”.  Unfortunately I failed to pronounce the final é sufficiently long (as indicated by the accent) – something like the ‘a’ in “cake”; instead I made it rhyme with the word “egg” (The IPA for the correct pronunciation is /ˈzølt͡ʃeːɡ/ but the end of my attempt came out more like /ˈʃɛɡː/).  That wouldn’t be a problem except that the word segg in Hungarian is a vulgar word for buttocks (roughly on a level with the English word “arse”, I gather), which made my mispronunciation quite amusing for a native Hungarian speaker.  As it happens, I already knew (but had forgotten) about the dangers of saying segg (NB the letter ‘s’ in Hungarian is pronounced as “sh” (or /ʃ/ in IPA), while the “s” (/s/) sound is written as ‘sz’) as, when I visited the town of Szeged, I was warned to avoid saying it with “sh” at the beginning (and why). 

To return from my linguistic digression, I decided to try lobbing a bit of Vegeta (about a medium-sized pinch if you want to be slightly more accurate) in with the rice.  For good measure I also chucked a bit (a large pinch this time!) of paprika in there.  The end result was very tasty, even without any accompaniment. I think it would work nicely, too, if the rice were being eaten with something else.

By the way, my usual rice cooking method is one which I picked up from a Chinese cookery book (one by Kenneth Lo on the art of cooking with a wok, as I recall; I can’t remember what it was called although I think I still have it somewhere – probably on my kitchen shelf if I could be bothered going to look).  Esssentially, you measure a quantity of rice into a saucepan, add boiling water in a proportion of 3:2 (water to rice; I usually use a 1/2 cup measuring cup of rice and one each of 1/2 and 1/4 cup measures for the water when I’m making rice for one meal for myself), put a lid on the pan, stick it on the cooker at lowest heat for 10 minutes (more-or-less carefully times), then turn off the heat and leave it sitting (with the lid still on) for a further 10 minutes (although I often only give it 5 or so for this latter stage and it seems to work fine).  As long as you’re reasonably careful with the measurements the rice comes out consistently well-cooked – moist but not too wet – and it avoids having to either watch your rice like a hawk or risk either very soggy rice or a burned pan.

I’m not sure how much rice features in Hungarian cuisine (though it is mentioned on the Wikipedia page so evidently it’s not unknown there) but I’m under no illusion that this is particular preparation likely to be an authentic Hungarian dish (although I could be wrong about that).  I think it’s one I’m likely to use again, though.

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.