Krampusnacht

Krampus is a horned, demon-type creature, sometimes depicted as half man half goat. His name means “claw” and he’s possibly based on mythological creatures such as the satyrs.

Mostly known in Austria and Bavaria, he said to visit on 5th December, the day before St Nicholas. He carries a chain or a birch stick to wave around, and his job is to remind the naughty children to be good.

According to some stories he leaves lumps of coal for the children who haven’t been well behaved but in others he goes as far as carrying them off to eat!

Learning a language with Duolingo

At the beginning of the summer I signed up for a Duolingo account. I know, I know – I’m late to the party, but better late than never.

Not long after I started, I read an article about why apps are no good for learning language. The article listed dozens of reasons why you can never learn from an app, why learning from an app is detrimental to your language learning experience, and why the only possible way to learn a language is from a language tutor, and it was written by… a language tutor!

I suppose as a language tutor myself, I should back this article 100% and agree with everything it said, but I’m not going to. While I agree that for many people having a language tutor is beneficial, I think an app such as Duolingo definitely has a place in learning a language. My husband, a fluent German speaker, has commented that my German has improved more in the few weeks since I’ve been using Duolingo than in the previous few years of off-and-on German learning, so I’m going to look at the reasons for this.

Firstly, each of the Duolingo lessons are only five minutes which means it’s easy to fit them into your day. Waiting for a bus or for the kettle to boil? Do a Duolingo lesson while you’re waiting. I’ve found that with a few five-minute bursts I can easily do 15-20 minutes every day, and this little but often approach helps me to retain what I’ve learnt. I tend to do two or three revision lessons and one new one each day, but you can set the pace yourself. As you progress you earn points, called Lingots, which you can use in the Lingot shop to buy bonus lessons, tests and various other things.

The words are learnt in the context of a sentence, which really suits my learning style. I’ve tried to learn the different case endings for articles and nouns before, but when presented with them all in a table my eyes start to swim, my head starts to hurt and I can’t make any sense of it at all. One of the first sentences I learnt with Duolingo was “Die Fliege isst das Fleisch” (the fly eats the meat) which allowed me to store a sentence in my head as a point of reference – so now I always remember that “das” remains “das” in the accusative case. After only a few days I had built up a store of reference sentences for masculine, feminine and neuter nouns in nominative, accusative and dative cases, and was able to independently substitute other words to make simple, grammatically correct sentences.

There is a lot of built in repetition which helps the words and structure enter my long-term memory, and you see and hear the words several times before you are asked to write them yourself. If you make a mistake, you get a message telling you which bit of the sentence is wrong, and how to put it right, and there are several opportunities throughout the lesson to correct a mistake made earlier on.

Many of the sentences are nonsense. They all make grammatical sense, but not necessarily semantic sense. I’ve seen this as a criticism from some people, but for me personally this works well because it means that I focus more carefully on the grammatical structures. If you want to just memorise and repeat some useful phrases, then this app probably isn’t for you, but memorising and repeating set phrases isn’t the same as speaking a language. Because I know that the sentence isn’t necessarily going to make sense I can’t just pick out a couple of words I recognise and guess the rest, I have to look closely at the sentence and pick out the grammatical structures. This enforced close examination then makes it easier when I have to produce sentences in German, because I have already taken note of the correct word order, case endings needed, accented characters, etc.

Of course, it’s always easy to get carried away with learning new words and phrases, and all too easy to forget to go over what you already know. This means that although you may feel as though you are making progress because you are completing lessons and moving up the levels, in fact you’re not learning the language because you are forgetting so much. Duolingo has built in reminders that you need to go back and revise. Each skill is represented by a colourful circle, and when you have completed all the lessons for that particular skill the circle turns gold. After a while the circle changes back to its original colour, and this is a visual reminder that you need to redo some of those lessons as a refresher. As the lessons are so short, revision doesn’t seem like a chore, and redoing lessons still earns you points towards Lingots to spend in the shop.

Could anybody learn a language with Duolingo? Possibly, possibly not. I’m a linguist, so I’m used to thinking about language structure, and the context-based style of Duolingo really suits my way of learning. Plus I have the added bonus that I can practise with my husband as often as I want, so I’m constantly reinforcing what I have just learnt.

If you’re thinking about learning a language I’d suggest giving Duolingo a go. It’s free, so what have you got to lose? If you find it doesn’t work for you, or if you feel you need a real teacher as well, then you could have a look at adult education classes or a language tutor. If you live in north Birmingham and you need a French or Spanish tutor then get in touch to see how I can help you.

Why the English are being left behind in the world of business

Today’s post is a guest post from my lovely husband, Ian.

In my work as a Blue Badge tourist guide, I have the opportunity to meet people from all around the world, from all walks of life.  The job also gives me the chance to use my fluent German in my professional life, which opens up a great many possibilities.

I recently had the pleasure of guiding a group of families from Luxembourg, on a tour of Harry Potter film locations throughout England (one of my numerous special interest tours).  As most people know, Luxembourg is very much a multilingual nation.  The group I worked with had Luxembourgish (which, incidentally, sounds like a mish-mash of German, Dutch, French and bits of other languages, a little like the country and its people I suppose) as their native language but the tour was in German, the main international and media language in their part of Luxembourg.  While I was not surprised to discover that most of the adults had a good level of competence in several languages, including a number who spoke perfect, unaccented English despite never spending more than short holidays in Britain, I was amazed by the incredible language skills demonstrated by the children, who were aged between around 5 and 13.

In addition to their home language they all spoke at least fairly fluent German, certainly enough to have read or watched Harry Potter in German, and to follow my tour and explanations and to talk and joke with me with no problems at all.  Officially, I was told they start to learn German at the age of 5, but it was clear that earlier exposure through the media had given them all a massive head-start.  While the younger ones “only” spoke the two languages, most of the older ones had gone several steps further.  They start to learn English at 12, but those of 9 or 10 already had a solid grasp of the language, and coped perfectly well with being in England for the week.  There were several of them who were capable of reading books and watching films in English.  Most also have at least a conversational command of French, another of the official languages of their country.

One of my abiding memories of the week is a conversation with two of the older children, aged around 12 or 13, who both proudly told me that they were fluent in four languages, and had a good knowledge of two others each.  Having studied for many years to reach fluency in one, I was in awe of their abilities.

Of course, part of the reason for Luxembourgers’ language skills is cultural – their country has several official languages and people live in close proximity to borders with other nations.  But even so, I could not help comparing the attitude of the children I met with kids (and indeed adults) in Britain, for whom learning languages is a chore and largely seen as unnecessary.  The children on my tour took huge delight and pride in being multilingual, appreciating the opportunities for communication and experience it opens up for them.

These are the young people the next generation of Britons will be competing with in education and employment in a few years.  While the oft-cited argument that “the whole world speaks English” does have some validity – and there is no doubt that being a native English speaker is a major advantage – in a multinational and multicultural world, someone with six languages always trumps a comparably qualified person with one, even if it is English.

Apart from the sheer joy of meeting children who take such pleasure in learning and speaking other languages, what I took away from that week most of all was the contrast with the insular attitude in Britain.  Rather than dismissing languages as a non-essential part of the curriculum, how amazing would it be if the average British kid of 12 could enjoy books, films, and conversations in six languages, opening them up to a world of experience, culture and potential?

Ian Braisby works as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide and as a German into English translator. He and I blog together at IAB Tours and he can also be contacted via his tourism and guided tours website.

The Language Show Live 2012 – What I learnt from Dr Rachel Hawkes

Rachel Hawkes had some great ideas for motivating pupils to practise their language skills outside of the classroom. My favourite was the Spanglovision contest which her school does in Year 7. Each class has a different song, and in an interactive lesson at school they listen to the song and make-up some actions to help them remember the meaning of the words. They then take the sound file away so that they can practise at home.

There is a big incentive to do the practise at home, because at school they then have a show for the rest of the school to watch. The Y7s perform, and the Y8s upwards vote for their favourite act. They also have a special show for the parents to come and watch.

Although Dr Hawkes teaches in a secondary school, I think this activity would work really well in a primary school. It would fit perfectly into a European week in a primary school, with each class learning a song in a different language – they could then dress up in the colours of that country’s flag for the final show.

A similar idea is Language Beatz: the children get a backing track, and they create their own song based on whatever vocabulary they are currently learning. This would be a great cross-curricular project for music, ICT and MFL in a primary school. When the song is finished, if teachers and pupils want to, they can submit it to a national competition.

To celebrate all languages within a school, why not have a multi-cultural/multi-language recital? Children are invited to sing a song, read a short story, or recite a poem in either the language they are learning at school or their home language. The English translation is shown on a screen behind them for the benefit of people who don’t know that language. I like this idea, and again I can see it working well at primary school level as well. To break up the speaking and singing, there is no reason why you couldn’t also include some traditional dances from different countries.

These first three ideas would make a lovely alternative to an end of year play.

The last of Dr Hawkes’ ideas that I’m going to talk about here is the Language Challenge. The children have a list of challenges to choose from, and they earn points for each one they achieve. When they reach 100 points they receive a reward. The points awarded for each challenge vary according to the difficulty , so pupils can choose to do 2 or 3 hard challenges, or lots of easier ones. This makes it possible for even lower achieving pupils to reach 100 points. In her school the challenges are things such as:

  • updating Facebook status in the target language for 1 month
  • writing an explanation for a grammar rule
  • teaching a younger child
  • producing a website or blog in the target language

Obviously these challenges would be too difficult in a primary school, but there is no reason why some simpler challenges couldn’t be set:

  • answering the register in German every day for half a term
  • writing the date in French  in other subjects
  • borrowing a bilingual book from the classroom and using it to identify the meaning of one word in the target language
  • counting in Italian for games in the playground

For language teaching and tuition from beginner to GCSE, visit my website www.sjbteaching.com.

Related posts:  The Language Show 2012 – What I Learnt from Isabelle Jones
The Language Show 2012 – What I Learnt from Helen Myers
The Language Show 2012 – What I Learnt from everyone else
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