Monday, May 02, 2016

you are 48% fluent in spanish

Or so says the wise little owl that acts as the avatar for Duolingo.

I'm not. But Duolingo is one of those smartphone "apps" designed for the children of our age who have never been told anything harsh in their lives for fear of making them feel as if their "safe space" has been fouled.

Hobbes was correct. Life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." But you are not going to hear anything like that from Duolingo. Instead, the very polite program repeatedly tells me "That is almost correct" when it should truthfully say "Not even Desi Arnaz could understand what you just said. Have you thought of trying Greek?"

Well, I have tried Greek. And Russian. And German. And Italian. And Latin. I liked them all. And I did quite well at learning them -- without the smarmy reassurance of Duolingo. My Spanish lessons are not going that well.

Last August I decided to cut back on writing my essays -- along with most of my other official charitable and social activities -- to focus on learning Spanish. Daily, starting in October, I sat down at the computer and worked my way through The Learnables program. It helped me attune my ear to listening.

In November I drove up to Oregon with my brother. Because we were on the road, I could not use my laptop efficiently. So, I signed up for Duolingo on my smartphone. Several readers had highly recommended it.

I was skeptical. I had looked at the program a couple years ago. The exercises were seductively simple. My score was perfect each day. The problem is that I could not recall a single thing I had supposedly learned. So, I set it aside.

This time, I stuck with it -- on the road north, in Bend, on the road south, and back at the house. Duolingo is based on the concept of units. Food. Animals. Plurals. Past imperfect verbs. That sort of thing. Maybe it was Duolingo that was the genesis of one of my favorite Lincoln quotations: "People who like this sort of thing are going to find it is the sort of thing they like."

The idea is to complete a unit successfully enough to be allowed to proceed to the next level. It is a little like being an initiate of the Scottish Rites Mason. (Just to reassure you Illuminati conspiracy theorists out there, I am not.)

Due to some glitch, I lost all of my progress twice and had to start over. (For the record, I actually finished the entire series last night. Thus the 48% fluency award.)

But, at some point, I needed outside classes. Duolingo is based on inductive reasoning. By completing the exercises, you are to infer the grammatical rules.

I am fine with inductive reasoning. After all, we use it every day of our lives merely to survive. But, when it comes to learning languages, I often require a bit of deduction. I want to know the rules that describe why Spanish sentences are peppered with two letter words that make no sense to my English-speaking mind with its Germanic sentence structures.

So, I started Spanish classes last January -- for one day. It was not a good start (back to school). I started again in February -- attending two one-hour classes from Monday to Thursday.

The classes were almost exactly what I needed. My primary reason for learning Spanish is to get me through the language requirement of the Mexican citizenship process. In our area, applicants are required to pass an examination that is the equivalent of a college-level Spanish course.

Most of my fellow students are not as concerned about the grammar. They are there to learn how to enjoy conversations with their Mexican neighbors.

My ideal course would be a formal instruction with a lesson plan and tests to measure my progress. But that would suit only me.

Amy, our teacher (a native Spanish speaker from southern California who now teaches high school Spanish in Maine, but is on sabbatical here until June), has a great technique of easing us into the complexities of the language. By teaching us the usual greeting phrases one would encounter on the street, we were already exposed to reflexive verbs and direct pronoun placement before we discussed them formally.

Here I am, three months into my 8-hours a week lessons, and I still feel uncertain about my progress. The subjunctive and conditional verbs still baffle me. And I often cannot find the word for "anathema" or "reprehensible."* The more likely candidates are "knife" and "left."

My concerns may be groundless. Even though I often have trouble performing in class, I received the best endorsement of my progress this week from Dora, the woman who cleans my house.

We were talking about Barco's latest destructive episodes. There I was recounting tales like Cervantes in prison using my limited language tools. The preterite. Past imperfect. Gerunds. Nouns that I did not know I even knew (probably implanted there by Duolingo and Amy while I was not looking). With Dora correcting me where necessary.

When I finished, she commended me on how well I am doing. It was high praise indeed. Even the neighbors seem to wear less baffled looks when I stop to chat with them.

I have two more years before I need to sit down and take the formal test that will help prove my assertion that I want to be a member of the country in which I now live permanently. There will be plenty of tie for me to keep slogging through the plains of Spain.

Right now, I feel as if I have been undergoing several months of root canals. I trust it will all prove to be worthwhile.

As for Duolingo, I have one word for you -- a word I learned in class:

* -- Yes. I know. They are cognates. As J. Edgar Hoover once said: "To ask the question is to answer it."

** -- I suspect you can figure that one out without any resort to a Spanish translator.

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