Friday, May 20, 2016

On Learning Languages

Earlier this week, Janet of the blog MacQue mentioned the language learning website and app Duolingo.

I got curious, downloaded the app to my phone, and found myself spellbound… It’s a free app, with no annoying ads interrupting the flow – and it works a bit like a computer game, giving immediate feedback. I decided to try a bit of Spanish, and got totally captivated. This is only my third day, and they say I’m already 11% “fluent” …

Duolingo

Even if I have my doubts about their definition of fluency, it certainly encourages one to go on... (If I can keep it up at this rate, I should be 100% fluent in a month, right??) (As if!)

Anyway, it is a rather amazing way of learning; which made me think back on previous language learning experiences.

By strange coincidence, I had already started planning this post when today I turned on the radio (as I often do when working in the kitchen) and there was a program discussing how learning more than one foreign language (English) seems to be on the decline in Sweden. Apparently (I have not been keeping up!) it is no longer mandatory to learn a second foreign language in school (as it was back in my day, in ‘junior high’). Neither the kids nor their parents seem to see the point any more. So while we’re getting better than ever at English (hearing it daily on TV and the internet), our knowledge of other languages is falling behind.

In my day, i.e. back in the mid 1960’s, English was introduced in 4th grade (age 10) here. In 7th grade, in addition to English, we got to choose between French and German. As my parents (growing up during WWII) weren’t fond of German, I was persuaded to choose French. (Not that I remember how much persuasion was needed.) As I liked languages, I wanted to go on in that direction in secondary school though, which meant a third foreign language then. The ones on the menu this time were German (or French, if you had started with German), Spanish or Russian. As it seemed German would probably be the most useful, that was now my choice. And while still in 9th grade (at age 15) I even decided to get a head start with a German correspondence course.

And that was what I got thinking of while trying out the Duolingo app now… The correspondence course in 1969/70 consisted of booklets with texts and exercises, sent by letter, one at a time, and accompanied by vinyl records the learn the pronunciation. If memory serves me right they were EP format, i.e. longer than singles, but shorter than LPs. I had a small travel gramophone in my room – the speaker was in the lid.

Exercises or tests were written down on paper, and sent back by letter for correction; and were returned corrected and graded. No oral exams, obviously… Mum may have helped me with the pronunciation too - I don’t really remember! But as she was born in 1930, her first foreign language must have been German. (That was only changed to English after WWII.)

Now you just click on an app on your phone, and it speaks to you, and you speak to it, or click on it, or type on it; and the app reads/ listens, and tells you immediately if you said it right, or if you misspelled something, or if you tend to forget a word it gives you extra exercises with that word.

On my first blog, The Island of the Voices (2009-10), I wrote a series of eight posts entitled About Me and Languages. You’ll find links to those old posts on the page About Me at the top of this blog. In #4 , for example, you can read about my experience when in the 2nd year of secondary school, Latin was added into my language mix, on top of English, French and German.

After my three years in secondary school, I had a gap year (working in an office in my home town), and after that went on to an 18 months secretarial education, including one term of English at university, and also special college courses in “business language”, in Swedish, English and German. (We could choose French or German, but I chose German over French, even though German was my 4th language.) We also learned stenography in all three languages. (No way I could manage stenography in German now… It’s been ages since I used it even in Swedish. But I did use it in all three languages in my first three years working as a secretary within the Swedish paper industry.)

I never went on with that autobiographical series. (Maybe some day I will. Who knows.) But to sum up briefly: After a few years working as a secretary I went back to University for more English, and German, and one term of history; and then also methodology and teaching practice, to become a teacher. And then I moved to the town where I still live now. But my teaching career was cut rather short because of lack of jobs in my combination of subjects; and after some stress related health problems, and because one still has to earn a living, I went back to secretarial work (with the advantage of  regular hours at least). Later also got six months additional education to qualify as a medical secretary. And remained working at the hospital (mainly for occupational therapists); until an accident (at work, but not really to do with my usual work) led to chronic pain problems and early retirement (over a decade ago now).

What revived my active interest in English was Harry Potter and the Internet. (Did you miss that book? haha) Seriously… Between the last two books in the series I got involved in a Harry Potter discussion forum (in English), which in turn revived my interest in the English classics, and book discussions in general. And when the Potter story had reached its end, I turned my eye to the Blog World… And here I am still, having made new friends all over the globe (yes, I mean YOU), and discussing all sorts of odds and ends. And along the way, besides books, there have been the joys of learning a bit about digital photo editing, and then there was Kindle (want to read an obscure old classic? just download it!), and Android devices and apps, and Postcrossing, and whatnot. And now Duolingo. Curious to learn a new language? No need to bother about evening classes or correspondence courses… The opportunity is just a click away! Amazing.

When I’ve learned ‘enough’ Spanish, perhaps I’ll try something even more daring – like Welsh! It was one of the suggestions that came up on top when I opened the app. I chose Spanish; but the very next day, this card dropped in through my letter-box, from a certain friend holidaying in Wales…

160513-160418 from John 176

Seriously. I’ve always been fascinated with Wales, and anything Celtic, ever since our family holidays in Britain back in the early 1970’s...  But for now, I say Buenas Noches.

Winking smile

18 comments:

  1. You are truly amazing! I have always admired the fact that you are multi lingual, and now this! Truly I don't know how anyone can do it. How do you learn millions of words? I think it really takes a special person with an inquisitive mind, longing to learn, and determination.

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    1. Ginny, I seriously doubt I know "millions" of words. :) I think you're right about the learning process though. Learning languages requires both motivation and determination. And as English has become the most popular international language, I can see why many who were born with English as their native tongue don't feel motivated to learn other languages unless there is some special reason. For us who grew up with a "small" language, the situation is different. Learning English is definitely essential for us if we want to be able to travel or otherwise communicate with people from other countries. In Sweden we also get a lot of British and American TV shows, and always with subtexts rather than dubbed speech. That way we hear English daily; even those who do not actively use it.

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  2. Monica, this is fascinating! I knew you knew several languages, including my mother-tongue German, but I didn't know how you came to have such a perfect grasp of English (and probably of German and French, too).
    Sad to say, my French - which was rather good at some time - has greatly suffered from lack of practice, and by being pushed aside in my head when Italian took over. I am still fluent in that language, although people find it funny when they hear my Sicilian accent. It was all learned "just so", I never took a course, but having learned French at school from the age of 12 certainly helped.
    English was introduced to me when I was about four years old, through the lovely Australien honeymooners living in the ground floor apartment of our house.
    I've always been fascinated with Russian and Arabic, so who knows - I might start on them with the app you recommended. Thank you!

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    1. Meike, my French has suffered a lot from lack of practice as well. I might try to freshen that up a bit with Duolingo too - but I think I'd probably better stick to Spanish for a while now or it will all become one huge mess in my head! ;) The thing with French for me was that after three years ('junior high') I thought myself rather good at it... While two more years in 'senior high' just made the French grammar seem more and more complex, and I realised how little I really knew! While with German, my experience was the opposite. The grammar is hard work to grasp initially, but it is fairly regular and systematic. My major problem with German is that we are not exposed to it the same way as we are with English, and therefore I don't pick up words the same way, and forget many of those I may have knows, and especially which definite article they come with (der/die/das). And if you get that wrong, the whole sentece often tends to collapse! - or at least it becomes very obvious that one is not a native speaker! (Blessed be the English "the", and the plural ending -s! I think those are the main reasons why we of other language backgrounds find it easy to learn English; even if spelling vs pronounciation may be a conundrum sometimes.)

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  3. One of my very few virtues is a lack of jealousy. However I have always said that if I had been gifted in anything then, even over a natural ability to play a musical instrument, would be a natural gift for languages. So I have to plead guilty to a slight infringement of the fourth Deadly Sin when I think about the facility that you and Meike both have for languages. Perhaps with Duolingo I might improve my French (or even my long-forgotten German) sufficiently to speak proficient 'tourist' in those languages again.

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    1. Graham, if you think of it as admiration instead of jealousy you are more likely to learn a new skill. It is not a sin to be compassionate towards yourself.

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    2. Well, Louise, you've given me quite a lot to think about with that comment for which I thank you.

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    3. Graham, I think most of us probably struggle to recognise our own talents (because however good we may be at something, there is usually always more to learn!), while it's easier to see it in someone else - especially if they have a skill that we ourselves feel we have not been gifted with...

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  4. my mine is blown at all you have done in the past. i am going to try this in Spanish... half our population is Hispanic here in Florida and it would be nice to be able to communicate better. will try it on my tablet since it is easy to use and i can talk to it.

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    1. Please keep me informed how you get along, Sandra :) Myself I have no special reason to learn Spanish except that I recognise a few words already and may be able to guess at others because of resemblance to the other languages I already know. Spain is one of the most popular holiday destinations for Swedish people though. But myself I have only been to Spain once - two weeks of family holiday, 50 years ago...

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  5. So glad you're enjoying Duolingo, I love it. I like the immediate feedback. I'm always in awe of people who speak more than one language. Spanish is my 2nd language, but I don't use it since I've retired (I was a Bilingual Teacher) and I'm afraid I'll lose it. So once I'm fluent in German I think I'll play with the Spanish.

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    1. I'm glad you mentioned Duolingo Janet, as I had never heard of it before!

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  6. Isn't it odd how some people have gift for languages but others don't? My son learned English, Indonesian, German and French at school. He taught himself Thai. My daughter learned English, Indonesian, Japanese, and Italian. The app Domingo is terrific and I hope it branches out into non-European languages so people can better cope with all the immigrants. We learn so much more than words when we learn languages.

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    1. Louise was that at school in Darwin?

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    2. You're right Louise, that with languages we learn more than words - we also get a deeper insight in the cultures. But certainly we have different inclinations when it comes to learning. Myself I always liked languages and reading, but never managed to conjure up any real interest in for example maths, and have happily forgotten everything beyond simple addition and subtraction and the multiplications table up to 10. Beyond that I'm in deep trouble without an electronic calculator...

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  7. Sadly my fluency in French has disappeared over the years but I still surprise myself on those odd occasions when i do end up speaking or writing it. It was the standard second language at our school with German or Latin a third option. I took Latin and have never regretted it. It proves so helpful in so many aspects of linguistics.

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    1. Same here, John. I have not kept up my French at all. Interestingly, though, now that I'm starting with Spanish, I find a bit of half forgotten French popping up in my head now and then as well. My brain seems to be hard at work connecting the new words to similar ones in all the languages I already know. The new words that I find myself struggling the most to add to memory now are those that do not seem to match anything that is already stored there!!

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  8. It's amazing what our minds can achieve, you sure are a testament to that! I heard that once you learn a second language it's easier to learn more, is that true? My wife and I are looking to travel and your blogs inspire us to try learning some of the languages.

    Sean @ Excel Translations

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