Actually Learn a Language for Free

I speak several languages, none except English fluently. (If you want to, just skip my lengthy “musings” and go straight to the last two paragraphs because they’re worth reading).  My Turkish is full on conversational, certainly, but it is difficult to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations because people tend to speak faster, use more difficult vocabulary, and mumble more when they’re not talking to me.  My Turkish got really bad over the last year and it’s taken me a few weeks to get up near my old level again simply because I never used it.  Okay, I rarely used it.  The main time I used it was yelling at Kim for speaking Azeri instead of Turkish and, when Tolga and I were TAing together, discretely telling him something like, “I can deal with this student if you hate him.”

My German used to be quite good, my accent was even decent (when I told Germany people that I learned German in Austria, they’d go “Ugh, I can tell.”  I feel like it was the equivalent of saying, “I learned English in Australia”), but my reading was never as good as it should have been and my German vocabulary has long since atrophied down towards monotone grunts.  The last time I was in Vienna, it was easier for me to find Turks and talk with them than it was to make myself fully understand in German.  This led to some hysterical situations where I would be speaking Turkish, the nice German-Turk would be responding to me in German, I’d clearly understand it but respond in Turkish.  I felt guilty because I am sure I came off as a nationalist asshole trying to prove a point, but at the time, my Turkish at the time wasn’t good enough to explain how bad my German was.  The funny thing is, in Austria, no Turkish people ever asked me where I learned Turkish or where I was from, which is what everyone asks me here.  Eventually, I asked a guy I had three separate Turkish conversations with, “Aren’t you curious why I speak Turkish?!?”  His answer was clear, “Your father’s a Turk.”  Not a question, a statement.  It reminded me of Junot Diaz stories where he talks about his “broken Spanish”.

My French was never very good, my accent awful, my speaking was horrendous, but my reading was good, because any educated person with a basic grammar and vocabulary knowledge can read Romance languages (especially French) decently well. Le Monde was easy, der Spiegel took sitting there for an hour with a dictionary.  Anyone who thinks they are “good at learning languages” after learning several Romance languages (or even just several Indo-European languages, which all have the same logic) is a putz.

My Biblical Hebrew (I was being a radical little Jew and didn’t want to “implicitly support the State of Israel by learning Modern Hebrew”) never really got off the ground: the class was at 9:30 every day and that was hard for me as a second year in college.  It was me, a couple ministerial candidates,  at least two doctoral students (one of whom already had taken Biblical Hebrew last year), a Jewish kid who already spoken Modern Hebrew, me and an Asian girl.  Me and the Asian girl were the kids that failed.  I can sound out words, know the logic of a couple of grammatical forms, but at this point can conjugate exactly zero verbs.  One cool thing about learning Biblical Hebrew was that some words don’t exist.   Some conjugations or declensions (most often the third person plural female forms) of some verbs would be in brackets because they were hypothetical reconstructions–they didn’t exist in the corpus; we never had to learn them because we’d never have to read them.

Learning a dead language was not my style.  I learn best by learning a couple of cute phrases (“Je n’ai aucune idée”, “Ich hab’ keine Ahnung”, “Jeton düştü”)  and then fake it ’til I make it.  What was my style, however, was Esperanto.  I learned the shit out of Esperanto, twice in fact: once in 10th grade, once in 12th grade.  Speaking to myself got tiring, and when Brian (the other linguistically inclined dork in our group of friends–I think he works for the State Department now) refused to really commit to learning with me, I let go and all my “Esperanto talent” disappeared.  It’s a language I’d like to pick up some day, but I need a speaking partner (I have already asked all of my best friends, and they’ve declined, so now I’m waiting to get married, and if my future wife declines, too, I’ll just foist it upon my children as a “secret code”).  Also, I’ll relearn if I ever think I’m going to meet George Soros, who is a native speaker.

While I’m just listing languages I’ve learned, I spoke fluent Bahasa Indonesia when I was four.  We lived in Yogjakarta for one of my father’s sabbaticals and the international school was K-12 (with about 60 students total) while I was pre-K.  I went to an Indonesian preschool (I remember our patriotic white and red checked uniforms) so I absorbed it up as only a child or sponge can.  I remember once in a market, I was translating for my parents (I think we were trying to buy a small bracelet for my sister), and just explaining, “Yeah, these people are so stupid.  Indonesian is easy.  I speak it.  You speak it.  My parents are just dumb.”  I was an adorable child.  My sister, who went to the international school, never really learned Indonesian so when we got back to America, we never ever spoke it, not as a family.  One of the few things in my life that I wish had happened differently.  Now, I can’t speak a single word.

(IF YOU’RE SKIMMING, START AGAIN HERE).  Why do I mention all this?  Because there’s a sweet new website called Duolingo for learning languages.  It’s awesome.  Selin was one of the beta-testers for it, so she hyped it to all of us and it’s great.  Right now, German and Spanish are fully online, French is in beta, and they plan to add Italian, Portuguese, and Chinese next. I always kind of wanted to use language learning websites like LiveMocha, but never really wanted to speak to a stranger over the internet for half an hour.

This one is clean, well designed, and actually a little bit fun once you get into it.  How Duolingo works is simple: you basically master vocabulary, grammar, and move up through levels.  The interface reminds me a little of Google Translate and it s similar: the sentences you’re practicing on (if you haven’t watched the video yet) provide accurate, crowd-sourced translations, which is pretty nuts:
Turns out the guy who invented those semi-annoying “captchas” we all type in also invented this, and it turns out that “reCAPTCHAs” are not just stopping spammers and delaying the rest of us, they are performing the valuable function of making the poorly scanned parts of Google Books and the New York Times archive machine readable. Coooool.  Anyway, I’m using Duolingo to get my German back into shape so I can more readily transform my mediocre German into worse Yiddish for a research project. If things go well in my life, I might use it to bring my French back up to snuff as well. As Duolingo gets better, more importantly, I’m sure it will be a nice little “game” that will allow you to keep practicing languages even when there’s no one to talk to, and give you a reason to easily keep your language skills sharp (“Okay, I need to use Duolingo at least an hour this week”).  It even has listening already (but no speaking–I guess you’ll still need Live Mocha for that).  I’m sure as it improves, it will get better and better at recognizing idioms, which means it will get better and better at teaching you idioms, which is pretty amazing in and of itself.  I just thought you’d like a heads up about it because it’s marginally both fun and useful and simultaneously gives you a way to play around on the internet and feel productive.

2 Responses to “Actually Learn a Language for Free”
  1. Emma says:


    • JCB says:

      (You can make requests on their Facebook page!)

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