2 May 2013
I have had a lot of help from friends in my studies and I would like to share some English snippets that others may find helpful. My first little lesson is based on some wordplay that I saw earlier today:
We call this “a play on words” where a word with two different meanings suddenly changes the sense of the statement
The curtains are drawn … but the rest of the furniture is real.
The verb “to draw” in this example can mean fermer and dessiner in French and in Spanish cerrar and dibujar
There are lots of English verbs connected with curtains: in the theatre the curtain is raised or lowered, at home it may be opened, closed, drawn, shut or pulled. The curtain can be suspended from a pole, rail or track. And if someone is about to fail at something we might say “it’s curtains for him”. Eg “if Chelsea lose another game it could be curtains for the manager”.
29 August 2012
I have been talking to native Spanish speakers, online for over a week. In return for their forebearance I have been returning the compliment, in fluent English, in five minute doses. Let me introduce you to Verbling. First of all it’s free. You need a PC and ideally, a headset. A webcam would be good too but not essential.
To use it you log in to the website www.verbling.com and sign up for an account. Decide which language you want to learn (only Spanish or English for now but more to come soon) and you are ready to go. The first time I tried, I couldn’t get sound to work so I used the helpline. Jake got me sorted: I had to go into Control Panel > sounds to switch the default speakers to my USB headset (how embarrassing!).
Once connected you alternate languages every 5 minutes. There is an onscreen timer and a message appears onscreen reminding you both when it is time to change. There tends to be a 2 second lag on the audio connection, anyone used to Skype will have no problem with this. So far I have had three long conversations with fellow students in Nicaragua, Madrid and Mexico. I tend to use Verbling in the evening and it is easy to forget the time difference between UK and South America, it was 1.00am here when I finished talking with my new friend from Nicaragua.
One important tip: Verbling doesn’t work with IE9 but it does work with Chrome and probably several other browsers.
I still feel like the new kid on the block, getting used to the interface, and the different accents, and I marvel that my Castellan Spanish is so well understood, and each time is easier than the time before.
Here is a screen shot of the interface. When you are ready to chat click on the "get partner" icon and off you go…
8 May 2012
Learn a language for free. I’ve been waiting since December to get involved with this Project and finally I got my invitation. Duolingo is the brainchild of Luis von Ahn you can see his TED presentation where he explains what it is all about. The idea is that you study a language and it costs you nothing except for your time and effort. In return you contribute to the task of translating the Web from Spanish or French or German, into English.
The process has been made fun by using clever images and points reward systems and I find it quite addictive. If you already know a little or a lot of your target language you can fast-track by taking tests. At any stage you can review lessons and do a sentence or two of translation, it all accumulates points.
The system is described as beta, because it is still being worked on and tweaked. The interface is clean and doesn’t require too much scrolling. There are no distracting images just a friendly cartoon owl that looks sad when you fail a test and happy when you do well.
Here is a screenshot of the home page. You can see some of the stepping stones that you work through on the main screen, at the top there is a menu bar that offers “translations” (see pic 02), “questions” and “follow people”. On the top right you are shown your current level of progress along with “skill points” and “sentences translated”. There is a suggested order for tackling the lessons but it is quite flexible.
Once you are in the lesson there are options to study, translate and if you feel you already know the material you can take a test. Within the test there are no helpful hints. Very occasionally I was marked wrong for an answer that I believed to be correct or a valid alternative, when this happens it is easy to report (although you don’t get the mark awarded). You are tested on translation both ways and various grammar points, it is very unforgiving on typos. You might get away with the odd missed accent but that’s about all. I particularly like the option on the listening exercise where you can slow down the speech; it makes it easier to catch the endings eg nuestra vs nuestro.
There is an option of using a microphone that I haven’t tried.
Here is a screen shot of a typical translation exercise. At the moment the degree of difficulty seems random but that could change as the program develops. One nice feature is that you can hover over a word to get an instant (robot) translation. Some users complain about the small choice of subject matter but I haven’t found that to be a major issue. I will read just about anything!
If you have a competitive streak you can follow your fellow students on Twitter (it makes it easy to do this) and your progress is automatically displayed for your friends to see. I am not sure whether this is a help or a distraction in my case, too early to be sure.
A limited review, I know but I am only three days into it and so far only Spanish. I will probably try French next, time permitting. Overall: very impressed and I would recommend Duolingo to any keen language learner. The sooner you get on the waiting list the better.
18 March 2012
Here is a new website (new to me anyway) that I have been playing with for a couple of weeks. It is called Memrise and it makes vocabulary memorising into a game. You are presented with a garden for each language and invited to plant 5 seedlings (words) that you then have to water (practice) at intervals until they are ready to harvest. The program suggests mnemonics that are sometimes helpful in remembering new words. If you forget to water your seedlings you get an email reminder that they are wilting (shades of Tamigotchi). You can plant new seedlings in groups of 5 whenever you want, it depends how much time you want to spend on it. Above is a screenshot showing some seedlings ready to water.
You sign up for free and select what language/s you want to study. I chose Spanish, French and Hungarian (don’t ask). Here is my dashboard showing my current status.
It is a type of spaced repetition drill but the graphics and the garden game make it fun and keep you coming back for more. Each time you water your plants you get points for correct answers and the total is added to your profile. It was encouraging for me to go from a ranking of 12,050 to 6,800 (in the world) in about half an hour.
The graphics are simple and quite engaging. When you click on a word you are supposed to hear it: this doesn’t always work. Sometimes the pages are slow to refresh. Apart from that no gripes, its free and it makes studying fun. Give it a try and tell me what you think of it …
4 October 2011
I just finished reading a book called Dark Tangos, by Lewis Shiner. I enjoyed the story, without spoiling it is set in Buenos Aires and is contemporary. The thing I did that was different was to follow up on some of the references to music, places and themes that I met while reading the novel. For example when he mentioned a tango by Caló called "que falta que me haces" I went to YouTube and found a recording of the music. When he mentioned Lezama Park I went to google maps and found a slide show. I was able to follow his journeys through Buenos Aires with google maps (disappointingly without streetview – yet!). And thanks to google maps I now realise how close Buenos Aires is to Uraguay.So this has become my "must share" idea. Grab a novel set in a country of your choice. Follow up on any references to places and journeys with google maps and get some music from YouTube. Simple I know but this is the first time I have done it …
Almost forgot to mention that Dark Tangos is available as a free pdf. Download it here
12 June 2011
Question from a reader
"I hope you don’t mind my contacting you. I have read your interesting blog. I came across the sentence "the OU is trundling off in its own direction and making it hard for students like me to stay with them.".
Can I ask you how/why you feel this way? Is it expense, or quality of teaching, or what? I am seriously thinking of embarking on one or two language modules with the OU, and am interested in your views on whether they are as good or better than the conventional evening classes or even just ‘teach yourself’ books. I should add that I do have (ancient) O level passes in the languages I’m interested in, so I will not be a complete beginner…well, maybe not! Thanks for any help you can give."
25 May 2011
I enjoyed reading this blog post from Benny who is an expert on language acquisition and an inspiration to anyone who follows the polyglot trail.
I found myself nodding in agreement at several points. The languages that stick are the ones where you have emotional investment, that is why I have "forgotten" Norwegian, Italian and Welsh but so far, clung onto French and Spanish: they are the (only) languages that some of my friends speak. It’s obvious really, but for me seeing it written down made me realise it for the first time. So the message is clear, having got to conversational level I need to speak, read and think in English, French and Spanish every day, and all will be well.
17 February 2011
One of the first things my new Spanish teacher said to the class was that we should always try to start a conversation whenever we heard someone speaking Spanish in a shop or on a train or wherever. I thought at the time that sounded like a good idea, in principle! This topic has just been aired on the "about Spanish" group and the consensus is … well see for yourself.
Most people seem to agree that its a good idea to initiate a converation but like most things in life, a smile and a bit of humility will go a long way when talking to strangers.
27 January 2011
Watch this recording of Ken Robinson on his favourite topic: "Do schools kill creativity?"
I think he makes some good arguments and asks some searching questions including "what is education for?" His suggestion that our education system is designed to produce university professors makes a lot of sense. He suggests that formal learning does not teach creativity, in fact it tends to stifle it.
Applying this idea to language learning helps me to understand why I felt something was missing from my recent Open University courses. The grammar and other "facts" about Spanish was there in bucket loads but the opportunity to get creative and have fun with using the language was almost entirely absent.
I remember at school learning French, the old fashioned way. To me French consisted of lists of verb conjugations that had to be memorised and then regurgitated for exams. I don’t recall ever playing or having fun with the language. At the age of 16 when I first went to France I was tongue-tied, unable to have even a basic conversation. It was only 10 years later, as an adult that I went back to studying French and starting learning how to communicate.
In academic study mistakes are discouraged and punished by poor marks, this discourages the student from taking risks and makes the study a chore instead of a delight. Making mistakes and laughing about them should be part of the fun of learning. My reason for learning a language is to have fun using it, not to write learned essays with every comment carefully referenced and scanned with anti-plagiarism software.