Learning languages – 2

About one year and a half ago I became fascinated with the idea of going to Spain and walking (some) of the Camino de Santiago. I am also interested in food. So I began to study food vocabulary from menus of Spain’s restaurants I could find online. I describe a number of interesting discoveries in my other blog, YO TRADUZCO COMIDA.

From some limited experiences I’ve had with menus in countries where I don’t know any of the language I wanted to know as much vocabulary as I could find and learn in order to: a) avoid ordering something I don’t want, and, b) so I could order what I would want.

In Spain there is long standing interest in consuming ALL of an animal. For instance some menus offer manos, which literally translates to ‘hands’, but when they come from a pig they are the ‘trotters’ (feet). I had chicken feet wrapped in duck intestines in China so I’ll pass on any further consumption of animal’s feet. I’ll also skip tripa which is what it sounds like. Conversely many menus offer ternera, frequently a la plancha or a la parrilla. The dictionary says ternera is ‘veal’ and a la plancha (on the iron, i.e. cooked on a flattop grill or an iron skillet) and a la parrilla (on the grate) and neither of these are the usual methods of cooking veal. But that’s the point, in Spain ternera is just beef from a young cow (but not a milk-fed calf as per Italian veal). Given eating beef from very old cows or the bulls killed in the ring is a thing, most “beef” is just from young cows, about the same as feedlot beef here in the USA.

So just having a dictionary, or even a smartphone translation app, is not that much help. Dictionary definitions or literal translations don’t describe menu items all that well and sometimes completely incorrectly. Furthermore menus are replete with lots of terms you can’t even find in dictionaries (or that baffle Google Translate) and the unknown words can be: brands, location references, anecdotal names, recipes (such as the well known, gazpacho or paella),etc. For instance, cogollos can mean buds/shoots or hearts, but in the context of lettuce these are the inner and more tender leaves. Lots of things to learn.

Now my sister, who was fanatical about learning Spanish, declared that I should just learn the language – not a bad idea, but for multiple reasons not very practical for me. Plus now that I have given in and decided to learn (enough) Spanish in over four months of study I’ve encountered fewer words about food that I learned in a single day studying menus. So my idea, to collect an extensive food vocabulary, from seeing the words on actual menus still holds as the best well to develop a “translation” app for menus and I’m continuing to work on it.


In many cases the information written on a menu, even if properly read, still would live one with many questions. And I realized that often for English menus where I’m quite familiar with the vocabulary (both being native English speaker and a foodie) I realized I often do ask the server questions as to exactly what an item on the menu really means.

SO. I decided to learn Spanish.

Now it wasn’t just that I didn’t believe learning much of a language just to be able to read a menu was (entirely) the wrong approach. My reluctance came from my experience that I’ve tried, and failed, several times to learn even a tiny bit of Spanish.

So, full disclosure, I am terrible at learning languages. And Spanish was particularly difficult for me as well. So I was scared of even trying.

BUT, I got lucky and discovered an excellent, at least IMHO, learning tool, Duolingo. Not only is this free (and many other online tools are somewhat expensive) its approach has worked for me, at least so far (up to about 1500 words now). At my current pace it’s going to take me another year to get all the way through the Spanish course (tree in Duo’s terminology) and I should be able to have some limited conversations with the camarero or cocinero.

So now with all that introduction I’ll elaborate a little.

I have “learned” (and definitely need the quotes to point out ‘learn’ is an exaggeration) two languages before. And I’ve actually traveling to places where I could use these languages but my actual fluency was so poor it was easier to stumble through with the other person’s limited English than my really limited French or German.

My first “formal” instruction in another language was French, long ago in my 7th grade. I’m old enough that this was just shortly after the Sputnik “crisis” where there was a great deal of concern that somehow the “backward” Russians had passed the USA in technology. This led to criticism of our education and one shortcoming was the lack of US kids learning any other language. So my junior high had no language classes but did have a teacher who was fluent in French and he was asked to create a class. I don’t believe we even had any textbooks so the approach was entirely conversational, which many people, today, believe is the best approach. So we talked and listened a lot, did a bunch of little skits with simple dialog and so forth. At the time I really didn’t think I’d learned very much, however.

Later, in high school, in order to pad my CV for college applications I took German in a much more formal and classic academic approach, i.e. tons of memorizing vocabulary and learning grammar rules. I didn’t learn much there either (as I was later to realize). While I may not have a knack for language I am good at “learning” (for a short time until I forget everything). Our teacher gave a quiz at the beginning of every class for the vocabulary we had for that day and I always aced those quizzes. If she had waited to the end of the class I would have forgotten 90% of what I’d learned by cramming just prior to the class. Most of our grade came from written exams or homework and that was easy for me, but I had almost zero ability to either speak or hear German.

So not too much longer after formal classes I had a chance to test what I’d learned (or really failed to learn). I drove up to Quebec City from Boston at a time where speaking French was a very political issue in that province. So while native had been required to learn English they refused to speak it. I found that conversational stuff I had retained from 7th grade quickly came back, especially when I had to speak and hear French.

In contrast a few years later I went on a bike tour of Germany and Austria, often in areas where few locals spoke any English. I was totally baffled and unlike my experience in Quebec almost entirely unable to communicate at all. Fortunately I knew the numbers well (all that repetitive drill) which was critical to at least paying for meals since, at the time, waiters had no receipts and just told you what you owed so you had to understand at least that much.

But overall, despite about four years (two in each language) I was almost completely unable to communicate in these languages. So I developed the notion (still mostly true) that I just suck at languages (perhaps even in English).

But Spanish was a different experience. Gradually being able to speak some Spanish became essential in California as there are a lot of people who speak Spanish and little English and often one needs to do something with these people. Once on a bike trip I couldn’t even find anyone to give me directions, in English, in Watsonville!

So I decided I’d teach myself Spanish. At the time the only study materials were some books with audio cassette tapes. That was a complete flop! It is well known that native Spanish speaker do speak rapidly and many of the sounds in Spanish are fairly alien to an English speaker. So I couldn’t understand anything on those tapes. And without that, I got nowhere, not to mention that any attempts I made to actually speak Spanish had no feedback and thus my pronunciation was atrocious.

Later once PCs were more common and especially once CDs (you know, those things that look like DVDs are seriously predate them) were available at least two parts that were missing with audio tapes became available: a) random access and easy replaying of an utterance, and, b) some graphics so images could be used to associate with vocabulary. I got a little further with these tools but basically learned almost nothing. I’ve probably learned more Spanish just reading menus in Mexican restaurants!

So that brings me to now. Once I decided I really needed to have at least some minimal conversational ability, to have any chance of roaming around Spain outside the areas where English would do, I started searching for training materials, now with more advanced technology, i.e. online classes and other resources.

And there is a ton of stuff for Spanish, given it is sometimes claimed to be the second most spoken language (or at least, for sure, 4th) in the world. Plus the wonders of the Net means all sorts of written materials (e.g. newspapers) and videos (some streaming of TV shows) are available. And the main thing is a variety of (almost all not free) training programs. Most of those have some free demos and I tried a few of those and almost subscribed to one before finding Duolingo.

Duolingo tries hard to make learning a language fun. They have a bunch of languages but Spanish is their most popular one so the course there is well designed, especially since that site also encourages “social” aspects of the Net, in particular comments about everything about the language, even comments about each and every drill.

Now Duolingo has also gamified learning a language with various cutesy things, lots of attaboy rewards and also some pleasant nags to keep you moving. They also create a competitive environment which is good for encouraging more work. Now time is not an issue for me, fortunately being retired, and I can do all my study at home, or, as I’ve gradually used more and more, with an app on my phone (I get some funny looks while doing drills standing in lines, but I don’t care).

So long story short this is the first time I’ve gotten anywhere at all, even though I can’t claim much fluency. And, of course, the one thing I’m not doing is speaking any but certainly I’m getting plenty of practice hearing Spanish. When I first did even the simplest drills all the spoken sentences, which you must either transcribe or translate to English (with very fussy “grading” of your responses, which can be a bit irritating), I still couldn’t “hear” much. I think I became like how people believe dogs “understand” spoken commands, just repetition of sounds without any real understanding. At first I couldn’t even hear gaps between words, it was all a blur. Fortunately, while the pronunciation is different, Duolingo has a normal speed playing of the Spanish and a word-by-word slower playing (which I still use more often than full speed). BUT, I can now understand some sentences that were almost just random sound, to me, when I started.

Now eventually I got sucked into some of the game and/or competitive aspects of Duolingo. When you post there all your accomplished (which languages, what level you’re at) appear and I was amazed at some people with 40 or more languages. And then I read a lot of discussion about the best way to use Duolingo. I had started working all the way through a “skill” (a particular set of vocabulary, maybe a little grammar, for a topic, like shopping or traveling or even health). In Spanish each skill has five sets of lessons: 4 very easy to get started, 4 to review, 8 to begin to really start using the vocabulary, then 12 and then 20 thorough drills, IOW, 48 lessons per skill with about 150 skills. And each “lesson” usually has about 20 drills. IOW, you’ll do about 1000 drills per skill and so overall about 150,000 drills. That should allow it to sink in.

So my approach, without having seen any discussion about alternative approaches, was just to do all of one skill and move on to the next. Now you are required to finish at least the first level of each skill in order to “unlock” the next ones, i.e. you can’t just pick and choose, jumping around – you have to follow the order of skills in the “tree”.

BUT, you can unlock the next skill by just doing the first level of the current skill which is sufficiently easy (especially given you just hover the cursor over words and the English pops up) that anyone, even as bad at language as me, can crunch through that first level.

So while I’m steadily grinding through the Spanish, I also decided to “dabble” in French and German, and eventually some other languages. I discovered that I probably learned more in junior French than I realized because the French is easy for me. And you can “test out” to get through the levels quicker. This gets you more scores. So in French I’m doing all of level 1 of each skill, usually just one lesson of level 2 and testing out, and then testing out entirely in level 3. Levels 4 and 5 are too hard to test out without doing more of the drill, which would take too much time out from my learning Spanish, which is still going to take another year!

But I am piling up points.

Now if there are any readers here that read this blogs years ago you know I like to keep records and convert them to graphs (in the past, about weight, exercise and other things). So of course I’m still addicted to graphs so I’ll close with these.

That’s my Spanish with the most common measure of progress. You can see I was beginning to slow down, but then went to higher pace. There are a lot of reasons for that but mostly my enthusiasm, which was huge in the beginning, dropped a bit, but then the competitive desire to start racking up points kicked in. So, at least for me, that aspect of Duolingo has worked. This effect is even stronger in the next graph.

This is all the points I’ve gotten, in all three languages. Since I’m going through French less thoroughly (and even less thoroughly in German) I’m going faster so my total score really took off when I started “playing the game”.

Who knows how long this spurt will last but I do have a renewed burst of energy to keep going.

Now, a bit of bad news about Duolingo. I don’t think it really does enough repetition, especially of what I need to repeat. I mentioned above that I have a good short term memory so in the 15 minutes it takes to get through three levels of French I’m really cruising. But a couple of days later I realize I’ve also forgotten most of what I knew during that 15 minutes to get my “grade”. I don’t care about that for either French or German, since I’m just goofing off there. But for Spanish it’s more critical.

So, as my long term readers might expect, naturally I began to write my own code to assist my process. I’ve written three of my own drill apps where I’m trying to tune the algorithms to drill me in what I need and not just a lot of excess repetition. It’s taken a while but I think I’m getting somewhere, finding the balance of repetition on older lessons (or just vocabulary or verb conjugation) and acquiring new learning. Despite having lots of time I can only work on Duolingo a limited amount as I get tired, so more repetition slightly improves my retention but reduces how much new I’m learning. And since: a) I still want to go to Spain, although these days I think I’m more interested in Ecuador, and, b) I want to get back to studying menus I need to get a lot further than I am now. I sometimes now channel surf through the numerous Spanish language TV shows on our cable and I get a tiny bit, but that (also trying to read Spanish material for real, not learning exercises) is humbling enough to keep me grounded that despite feeling successful (for the first time ever) I have a long way to go.

So while I won’t be putting in new graphs and posts almost daily I will do a few more. One thing about blogging, that helped me a bit with losing weight, is I am making a public declaration of my intention to accomplish something. And it’s embarrassing to me to have claimed I’ll do something and then not do it. So this post is really for me as now I’ll have to periodically report some progress which means I’ll have to make some progress. And the competitive part of Duolingo is certainly keeping me grinding too (although it’s tempting just to get points the easiest way possible, which is OK for anything other than Spanish which I really want to learn).

So that’s my story. We’ll see where it goes.



About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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5 Responses to Learning languages – 2

  1. Mordanicus says:

    I have doing French on Duolingo for over two years now and it really helped me to refresh and improve my French quite well. And recently I added Spanish and Russian to my curriculum as well. However, I agree with you that Duolingo has its limitations. But that’s also true for other learning tools as well.

    • dmill96 says:

      The main problem I have is forgetting what I’ve learned. Duolingo does some repetition but I can’t see any pattern to it (i.e. drilling more on words I know less well). I’m trying to supplement that with my own tools but after several tries my tools still aren’t that helpful. I’ve searched for lots of other resources (and there are lots for Spanish) but the best, so far, is stories with English translations. I use these as study, i.e. I also get the Google Translate which is usually more literal and more like I do. After setting up four columns and blacking out the answers I attempt to do translation. Of course I don’t have enough vocabulary only 1/3rd through Duolingo, but that gives me a different type of study, looking up the words I don’t know and especially noting the more extensive verb conjugations. but my “translations” are “choppy” (too literal) but gradually I’m learning. I now realize translation and just reading are two different processes so for my practical needs I’m now trying more to just “read” and get most of the meaning of a story.

      • Mordanicus says:

        I agree. Duolingo is just one tool, and like any tool not perfect. I try to watch and listen to both the French and German news on a regular base in addition.

  2. Good post!! Nice information being shared.. Keep on sharing such posts in future..

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