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.

What is La Tomatina?

tomatoLa Tomatina is celebrated on the last Wednesday in August, in the Plaza del Pueblo, Buñol, Valencia.

Nobody remembers for definite the origins of this grand-scale food fight, but there are many suggestions ranging from a local food fight amongst friends, to residents pelting the council as part of a political protest, to a joke when a lorry shed its load of tomatoes. Regardless of how it began, it has developed into such a popular event that these days participation is strictly ticket-only.

It was banned for a period under General Franco, and participation was punishable, but the festivities were reinstated in the 1970s at the end of his regime.

The event begins at about 10am when someone has to climb up a tall greased pole to claim a ham which has been secured at the top. In theory the main event doesn’t start until this has been achieved. In practise, no matter what, it begins at about 11am with the firing of a water cannon to signal the start of the fight. To reduce the possibility of injuries there are some rules such as crushing the tomatoes before throwing them. By the time the water cannon is fired for the second time, exactly one hour later, to signal the end of the fight, around 150,000 tomatoes will have been thrown. They are grown in Extremadura especially for this annual event.

The town itself is cleaned by fire trucks hosing down the streets. Participants have to rely on local residents hosing them down, or go down to the river to clean themselves up.

Why MFL is good for children with SEN

A few days ago I read something that made me really angry. It was an article written by a parent about how the education system is letting her children down. At first I was sympathetic, and found myself nodding along with what she was saying. I agree that the education system isn’t perfect. I agree that sometimes, some children slip through the net and don’t get the help they need. But then she used the words that are guaranteed to infuriate me: “What’s the point in making them study French when they can’t even read and write English?”

It’s not the first time I’ve come across this attitude, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but it makes me cross and it makes me sad. I’m an MFL specialist so maybe I’m biased, but I can see plenty of reasons not to withdraw children from MFL lessons – including and especially those with learning difficulties. Let me explain….

What do French, Spanish, German, Italian and Dutch have in common? That’s right…they are all languages. So is English, so already we have identified something that English and whatever foreign language the child is studying have in common!

As languages, French, Spanish, German etc use grammar – just like English. And so here is my first reason for not withdrawing a child from their MFL lessons: in MFL we talk about grammar. We use words such as noun, verb, adjective, definite article, preposition….all the words the child is being taught in their English lessons are being reinforced in their MFL lesson. If they didn’t understand it first time, here is a golden opportunity to go over it again, in a different context. In MFL lessons we talk about the fact that verbs change their endings depending on who is doing them, and compare this to English “I look, you look” but “he looks”, so again there is more reinforcement of grammar. We talk about the different tenses and when to use them, and we look at how to structure a sentence and guess what…..we compare all this to English too. We look at similes and alliteration. We practise dictionary skills. In MFL, more than in probably any other lesson, we reinforce what they are learning in their English lessons.

It’s not just grammar that MFL helps with; it’s spelling too. In MFL lessons we look at spelling patterns and we talk about which ones are similar to English and which ones are completely different. More importantly, we think about how to remember the spellings of the words, and these techniques can be transferred to their English lessons.

It’s not just their English that benefits. When we learn how to count in a different language, or how to tell the time, we’re reinforcing their maths. When we look at countries where that language is spoken we are reinforcing their geography. The children study the culture of those countries (PSHE and RE), investigate the rhythm of language (music) and perform role plays (drama).

The other important thing about language – all languages – is that they are a means of communication. It isn’t just about reading and writing. Communication also involves speaking and listening, and we do plenty of that in MFL lessons. Just because a child struggles to spell, or to hold a pencil, doesn’t mean that they can’t excel at speaking, and just because a child finds speaking and listening difficult doesn’t mean they can’t do well with reading and writing. Last year I taught Spanish to a child who had several learning disabilities including dyslexia. He found writing difficult, but he really got the concept of adjective agreement and was able to show his understanding with the way he pronounced words when speaking, and he was really proud of his achievement. I’ve taught French to Deaf children because the school believed that they should have the same opportunities as hearing children. Some of them found it difficult, but some of them did really, really well with it. What a shame it would have been for those children if they’d been pulled out of language lessons because somebody decided it would be too hard for them.

My dream is for more people to take this attitude. To stop saying “What’s the point?” and to start saying “Why not?” Because maybe, just maybe, MFL could be the one subject the child excels at.

Addition 17-08-16
I came across this article recently, which gives a few more reasons: Why foreign languages have a place in autism education

Getting Children Speaking in the MFL Classroom

Book - KS3 French Speaking ActivitiesHow do you get your class speaking more of a language? I came across these great books recently which are packed with interesting ideas.

There is a KS2 and a KS3 version of the book, but the blurb on them recommends getting just one or the other as the content is very similar. I’ve been using the KS3 book with upper KS2 with no problems. Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to use many of them yet, but I’m itching to get a chance.

My Year 6 French beginners really enjoyed the survey where they had to find the name and age of everyone in the class. Obviously they already knew the real names and ages of their classmates, so I gave each of them a card with a French name, an age between 1 and 12 (as those were the only numbers we’d learnt) and a symbol to show how they were feeling.

You do need to monitor this activity quite closely, as some of the children will try to take the easy way out and copy answers over other pupil’s shoulders, but on the whole I found that the children had fun with it, and I heard lots of good French spoken in the classroom,

What activities or resources do you use to increase the amount of language spoken in your classroom? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below.

Apokries, Carnaval and Shrove Tuesday

While teaching a Spanish lesson on the months of the year a few months back, I pinned up a picture of a witch for “octubre”. One of the boys put his hand up and said that he found that confusing because in his culture (Greek) Halloween wasn’t in October, it was in February or sometimes March.

I was intrigued, partly because Halloween is on 31st October for a good reason – it’s the day before All Saints Day and so was believed to be a day when spirits came out for their last chance of mischief before going into hiding for the next 24 hours – and partly because I always like to learn new things about other cultures. I wondered what the significance of February or March was. The boy promised to ask his family for more details and to let me know.

The next day he came to find me with two pieces of information: 1) the celebration in question was called “Apokries” and 2) it was absolutely nothing to do with Halloween!

Curiosity piqued further I did some research, and this is what I found: the period of Apokries lasts for about 4 weeks, and the word comes from apo kreas which means “goodbye to meat” because during this time traditionally meat is not eaten. It is roughly equivalent to the Spanish and Brazilian “Carnaval” (a word which is believed to come from the Latin carne vale – also meaning goodbye to meat).

Apokries and Carnaval are both celebrated with parades and decorated floats, and (and this could well be where the confusion with Halloween came from) people dress up in elaborate costumes, often with masks.

This year Apokries lasts from 24th February to 17th March, and Carnaval from 8th-12th February. So, while they are having house and street parties, and several days of revelry and celebrations in other countries, what are we doing here in the UK? That’s right – eating pancakes.