Obdormio.com Unwasted Hours

11 June, 2012

Je Ne Parle Pas Français

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Obdormio @ 00:00

I don’t speak French.

That’s not really a remarkable fact in and of itself; there are actually a great number of languages I do not speak a word of, but French is the one that eats at me.

It’s not that I have a great interest in French, or indeed France, either. I have no particular plans or desires to visit France or travel in the Francophone world. One summer, I was given the opportunity to go either to Paris or Fredrikstad. I chose the latter. I have no special fascination with French culture, no interest in its literature so great that I cannot read translation, no love for its film so great that I cannot read subtitles. I do own a CD entitled “The Best of Bizet”, but I don’t think learning the language would have any real impact on my enjoyment of the music.

No, the reason why not speaking French eats at me is the  fact that I spent several hours, every week, for three years, in a class that aimed to teach me French.

Now, there were plenty of subjects in school I didn’t particularly care for, and several in which I was no good, but I think I still walked away from those with something. I can calculate the area of a circle, and probably solve an equation or two given enough time and paper to scribble on. I’m aware of the general function of tectonic plates. I can set up a monthly budget in a spreadsheet, and I could make a very basic database in Microsoft Access 2000, if I should ever see a copy of that again. I know how to light a butane burner, and I know the rules of dodgeball, but I do not speak French.

The thing is, I like language. I think linguistics is super interesting. I feel like I should have had something to show for it all at the end of those three years in secondary school, but nope! I can muddle through the title of this post, but that’s about it. I keep thinking that one day – one day! – I will find the time to go through those language courses they have in the library, or find some awesome online course, and really dig up all the knowledge that never really took back in school and learn the damn thing. It doesn’t happen of course – even when I do have free time, this goes way down the list of priorities.

Enter the thing I actually wanted to talk about in this post: Duolingo. Duolingo is one of these newfangled Internet crowdsourcing services, which aims to teach you a language while simultaneously using you to translate various web pages. You gradually get given more complex words and sentences, and the idea is that as you grow in proficiency, you can help translate more tricky stuff.

I read about this thing when they announced who knows how long ago, and though it sounded like a neat idea. I signed up for their mailing list, and promptly forgot the whole thing until a beta invitation landed in my inbox a few days ago. Over the weekend, I’ve been playing around a bit with their French module, and want to jot down some thoughts.

One the plus, I absolutely see how this might be useful – taking the language in small daily doses, and building up a slow rise in competence. I have, in fact, dug up some of those things I learned in school, enough to make heads and tails of the sentences and basic verbs, and have managed to advance to level four. I don’t know if that’s four out of ten (unlikely) or four out of ten million (also somewhat unlikely), but I am at level four.

And that’s the part of Duolingo I’m sort of sceptical about: the points advancement system. See, every lesson you complete or sentence you translate wins you points. When you have enough points, you advance a level.  There’s even a big medal hanging around the neck of my default profile picture whenever I log in, proudly proclaiming my prowess as a level four Frenchie.

I don’t feel like a level four Frenchie. I still don’t speak French. I can make it thought some of the sentences that keep getting repeated in these lessons (L’homme boit du bière et la femme boit l’eau, because stereotypes fuel early learning or something, I guess), but that doesn’t mean I’ve actually learned much. There’s no real explanation for verb conjugation so far, for instance – and if there’s one thing I remember from French class in school, it’s the endless word document of verb conjugations I had amassed by the end – so I feel like I’m perpetually one step behind what I’m being asked to translate. Like an important step has been skipped. Why should I get points for that?

More insidious still, I think the points and levels could easily foster a false sense of accomplishment. It promotes a train of though where you graduate from one thing and move on to another – “I have mastered this word, now I need not look at it or think of it again!” I won the trophy, now I need not expend further effort on the task. Language doesn’t work like that, it’s not a continually growing pool of points you amass, it’s a thing you practice regularly to maintain, or let atrophy into nothing. Like a muscle. This is Fitocracy all over again.

I’ll probably keep going with these lessons a while longer. It’d be mad to give up after three days, and the core idea is still a neat one. Maybe it’ll even help, after a month or two. Maybe I’ll even have to eat my words about the points system.

But I’ll only do that if I can do it in French.

Powered by WordPress