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Tag Archives: French

My Duolingo Addiction

 

I am addicted to Duolingo, the language learning app. I liked it well enough when I was using it on my desktop, but now that I have it on my smartphone, it’s my nightlight and my blanky all wrapped up in one. This could explain my recently developed wrist and hand pain, but I can’t give it up. I love the little trumpet bursts when I’m successful, and I love when a previously red or green circle turns gold, because I have (temporarily) mastered a skill. I do a little bit of Spanish, French, and Hebrew every day (who am I kidding, I do A LOT). I have to force myself not to add a fourth language to my training program (Italian? Russian? Yiddish? Do they even have Yiddish?).

B - and I'm getting sleepy

Cricket is, of course, fascinated.

It’s hard to know how much I’m really learning and how much I’m just punch drunk with the positive reinforcement. I was never much of a video game player as a kid. I tried Pac Man and Miss Pac Man and Frogger, but I never bothered to compete for high scores or move on to the more intense role playing games. But if I’d had a smartphone programmed with Duolingo and Typing Tutor (one of my old time favorites) and other learning games, I would have been a goner.

 

pac man

I always identified more with the ghosts than with Pac Man.

I’m pretty sure Cricket is learning by osmosis, just hearing all of these languages pouring out of my phone. But if she’s mastering any of it, she’s keeping it close to the fur. So far her primary language remains barking, and no matter how long she tutors me in this complicated communication system, I still can’t seem to master it. Clearly she needs to create an app for that.

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Cricket could be reciting her theory of how to achieve peace on earth.  I’d never know.

My long term goal with Duolingo is to improve my language skills to the point where I can actually use them, with people, but for now, there’s something so calming and low stress about it. Especially compared to all of the other learning tasks I have at the moment. Read two hundred pages and distill it all down to two paragraphs with citations, by tomorrow! Observe a group, without taking notes, and then produce a verbatim account of two hours of dialogue, and don’t forget anything important!

            The more stressed I feel, the more time I want to spend doing Spanish exercises. I am at risk of getting to the point where there aren’t enough hours in the day, and I’ll have to decide what’s more important, getting my school work done or fueling my addiction. I’m sure I’ll come to the right decision when the time comes. Well, mostly sure.

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“Do the right thing, Mommy.”

 

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I Finally got a Smartphone

 

In the midst of all the drama of this summer, my flip phone stopped holding a charge. I would leave it on the charger overnight, put it in my pocketbook, and take it out later in the day to make a call, and, nothing.

dog with phone

“Woof?” (not my picture)

So, after years of resistance, I finally gave in and bought an iPhone. The flip phone was embarrassing, but as long as it did what it was supposed to do, I could live with the shame. But once it wouldn’t even do the one simple thing I asked it to do. Pfft. That relationship had to end.

I was still not excited about dealing with the new phone and all of the unknowns though, like: invisible fees building up, the potentially addictive aspect of smartphones, the hacking issues, the dropping-the-darned-thing-on-the-floor issues, etc.

puppy with phone

“Please Mommy, don’t make me get a smartphone.” (not my picture)

I forced myself to take a class at the Apple store and realized how quickly I could fall down the rabbit hole, as my instructor clearly had, in choosing ten different ring tones, and buying apps, and staring at my phone at all hours of the day, spending all of my money on its care and feeding. That scared me off for a few days, but then I decided to go at my own pace.

I learned how to type with one tenth of one finger, and I even sent a text, or at least answered one. I haven’t really switched from my regular camera to the camera on the phone, though, both because I don’t know how to upload pictures from the phone to the desktop, and because I don’t know how to take good pictures with the darn thing yet. I thought I would be listening to podcasts and audio books all the time, but that hasn’t happened yet. I can check the news whenever I want to (but this is more of a bug than a feature).

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There is not enough peanut butter in the world to make the news bearable.

One thing that I love about my iPhone is that I can do my language courses whenever I want to. I don’t have to sit at my desktop computer, in the living room (where the air conditioner doesn’t reach), and practice my French and Spanish. I’ve become addicted to Duolingo. I can even use Google Translate to help me read Harry Potter in Hebrew (paragraph by painstaking paragraph). And I found some videos on YouTube of songs from the animated movie Moana in Hebrew, and they work very nicely as a way to block out Cricket’s barking when she’s trying to make me do whatever it is she wants me to do.

I still think there should be an iPhone for Cricket, so that she can call Grandma anytime she wants to, like, from the kitchen. She’d probably abuse the privilege, it’s true. But, what if there could be brain games for dogs on the iPhone? Find the Kibble? Or Catch the Leaf? Or Dig out the weeds?! Cricket would be addicted in no time. She might even forget to bark, once or twice.

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I have also recently discovered the value of having a phone to stare at when you are sitting and waiting somewhere and don’t want to look like a doofus with nothing to do, even if that’s exactly what I am.

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“Why are you looking at me like that?”

I should probably take more classes to learn how to take better pictures with the phone, and decide which apps are worth buying, but I haven’t had the energy, or the will, to tackle it yet. But I am up practicing my French at one in the morning, so that has to count for something. And, I even made a few phone calls.

Learning Spanish

 

I have been trying to teach myself Spanish. As an aspiring social worker on Long Island, I have belatedly come to realize that knowing some Spanish would be a good idea. Of course, I have unreasonable expectations of myself. I expect to be fluent (by, say, next Fall), to the point where I won’t need a translator to help me understand a client who speaks no English, and I will be able to catch every nuance of the different variations of Spanish spoken by Mexicans, Dominicans, Salvadorans, and maybe I’ll pick up some Portuguese while I’m at it. The fact that I can barely say Hello and How are you, at this point, is irrelevant.

I’ve been using a basic Spanish language learning program through my local library, online, and I learn a few new words each day. Ayuda (Help!) looks like it will come in handy. The thing is, I love languages. I’m still trying to work on my French and Hebrew (since childhood) without much success, but with endless effort and enthusiasm. I am currently reading the Harry Potter books in French, and have a Hebrew copy en route.

There’s something wonderful about learning a new language. It gives you an automatic sympathy for the people who speak it that you may not have had any other way. There’s been great joy in discovering that I can pronounce a lot of Spanish words exactly as they are spelled (as opposed to French, where letters drop out without warning). I was thrilled, until Y’s and double L’s started to sound like G’s out of nowhere.

I have tried to practice my Spanish on the dogs, but they are not interested in learning a new language at this point. Cricket is used to some French (un, deux, trois, Jump!) and Butterfly doesn’t mind a few questions in broken Hebrew (Aypho ha kibble? Where is the kibble?) But there’s a limit to their tolerance for my insistence on learning every language but theirs. How have I not learned to woof, bark, arf, yip correctly after all this time? It’s obscene!

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Un, deux, trois…

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“Yum!”

Certain words seem to impress them more than others, though, like empanada, tres leches, and el queso. I think I must say the food words with a particular tone to my voice that marks them out as special. We are a family that is very food motivated.

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“Mmm, stairs taste good!”

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“Is it worth it?”

As I try to build my Spanish vocabulary, some phrases seem especially important, like: No Hablo Espanol (I do not speak Spanish), and No Comprendo (I don’t understand); and Lo siento (I am sorry) will also come in handy.

I was interested to see that To Write, in Spanish, is escribir. I guess it’s the same root as Scribe, but it makes me think of scribble. I love the idea of being a scribbler. It makes being a writer seem less stuffy and more playful. Then there’s una pregunta (a question), which makes me think of a pregnant woman, as if every question is filled with a sense of possibility and new birth, which it is, isn’t it?

Eventually, I will have to learn more grammar and sentence structure, but for now I’m satisfied with certain phrases that I can make use of right away: Como esta usted? (How are you?), Me llamo Rachel (My name is Rachel), tengo dos perros (I have two dogs), and Gracias (Thank you).

         

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“A bientot! Oops, wait that’s French.”

Languages on the Brain

 

In college, after I decided not to be an English major, or a comparative languages major, I had to go for an interview with the head of the French department to see if I could become a French major. Sitting there in his office, I could barely put a sentence together, despite being in advanced French classes and doing well in them. The head of the French department was nonplussed and sent me packing, and I ended up as a philosophy major, where they accepted everyone.

Even after that debacle, though, I still felt tied to the languages I’d studied (French and Hebrew), and the languages I wanted to study (Spanish, Latin, Russian, German, Yiddish, etc.). I’m not sure what the draw is for me, because I have no particular talent for languages. My brother still remembers all of his high school French without even trying, or caring, but for me it’s a struggle.

Recently, I’ve been spending even more time and effort on my language studies, as a strange sort of antidote to all of the social work reading I’ve had to do for graduate school. I have computer games and audio cds and textbooks and short stories and poetry collections, in both languages.

The dogs have had to listen to a lot of people speaking French and Hebrew through the speakers on top of my dresser. They stretch out on the bed, or on the floor, and pretend they’re being told a bedtime story in gibberish. Actually, I have no idea how much they understand. It’s possible that when I try to repeat the Hebrew words the computer flashes at me, the poor puppy dogs are shaking their heads and thinking, How can you not know that word yet, Mommy? We’ve heard it a thousand times!

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Butterfly is listening carefully.

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Cricket, on the other hand, is getting annoyed.

It’s also possible that they couldn’t care less, and barely register that these words are in French or Hebrew instead of in English, because clearly no one is talking about chicken treats or pee trips, so what’s the point?

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“J’ai faim, Maman. You are starving me.”

I still have trouble producing words from the black hole of my mind. You would think, with all of the information I’ve stuffed in there over the years, the words would be spilling over the sides, but no, they go in and get sucked into another dimension and reappear only when they’re in the mood. I’m a writer with two master’s degrees, and I can’t think of the word for that plastic thing you use to mix cookie dough, or the metal version of it that can flip pancakes. I run through fork, knife, plate, napkin, flipper, baking thing, until Mom calls it a “spatula” and I say “Yes! That’s it!”

I can, and have, made a fool of myself in public many times when the wrong words popped up, or no words popped up at all. I think some of my nerve pathways must blink in and out of service like an old TV antenna. If I’m in a new environment, or under stress, even the most well-travelled pathways in my brain are hard to find. With the foreign language pathways, just the stress of being asked to remember a word can be enough to shut down the whole system.

Cricket never seems to struggle to find the right word, or bark, for a given situation, but maybe that’s just bravado and she’s desperately wishing for a larger, more comprehensive vocabulary with which to express her disdain. Do other dogs understand her? If she went to Paris, would Cricket be able to understand the dog in a beret, smoking discarded cigarette butts at an outdoor café? I don’t think she cares.

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“I have all the words I need.”

Maybe this herky jerky, non-fluent feeling I get from trying to speak in French and Hebrew is what I’m actually reaching for, though, as a metaphor that fits how I feel. My fluency in English doesn’t match the dysfluency of my mind. Maybe the struggle to find words in a foreign language, grasping for words and struggling with grammar, feels more like my internal experience of myself. And maybe, by working through this language learning process, I will eventually be able to feel more whole, or at least feel more like a dog.

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Talking To Dogs

 

My father used to yell at our Doberman Pinscher in German. It’s possible that he added in some Yiddish, but he made a point of saying that you should speak to a German dog in German. The rest of us spoke to her in English, though, and she seemed to be fine with that.

"Huh?"

“Huh?”

I have a habit of dropping into Hebrew or French for a word or two, rarely for a whole sentence, because I’m not fluent in either language. I don’t know why I do it. Maybe I’m just pretentious and annoying, but I like the way the different languages sound, with the hard square letters of Hebrew, and the rolling curlicues of French. Cricket can understand up to the number three in French, because that’s how I taught her to jump up onto the bed, Un, deux, trois, Jump! (See, I can’t even stay in French for four words!) With Hebrew I tend to stick to short phrases, like “Where is…?” or “Thank you” Or “Why?” And Cricket tilts her head and nods. She’s a savant.

"I understand everything you say. I just disagree."

“I understand everything you say. I just disagree.”

Butterfly has a whole different vocabulary. It’s as if the girls speak, or at least comprehend, two different languages. I can’t use the same words to communicate with both of them at the same time. I’ve noticed that they choose the words or signals they will respond to more than I do. It’s like they are flipping through a book of fabric swatches until they find one that speaks to them. Just because I repeat something a hundred times doesn’t mean they will pick it up, but I can do something just once, and it clicks forever.

"Mommy?"

“Mommy?”

I wonder if, given a chance, this is how people would be too, if forcing everyone to use the same language, while very convenient, is cutting off huge swaths of natural language.       What if I was born to speak Hindi and my whole life I will be missing pieces of my soul because I can’t capture them in English. Is that possible?

Butterfly responds best to touch. She calms when I pet her, she stills when I hold her in place for her insulin shot, she turns to look at me when I tug on her leash. She believes in eye contact and body language and leaves most of the English stuff to Cricket.

"I have Mommy's sock and that means I have Mommy."

“I have Mommy’s sock and that means I have Mommy.”

I tend to speak to Butterfly in a higher tone of voice, and fewer words overall. She responds best to facial expressions and body language. If I reach a hand out to her, she comes over to get scratches. She watches me very carefully. Sometimes I wonder if she’s partially deaf, but I think it’s more the deafness that comes from not understanding the words I am saying to her.

I tried to teach her “Down,” but she responds better to “Stop.” And I have to be right there, not across the room, for it to make sense to her. She understands when I pick up her blood testing kit, and she understands when leashes are taken off the hook at the door, but she doesn’t understand “sit,” maybe because it took her almost a year to build the muscle strength to sit on her back legs the way Cricket does, so when I was trying to build her vocabulary, she didn’t have any physical corollary for “sit.”

Cricket responds to tone of voice more than anything else. If she hears someone yelling outside, she barks. If I whisper, she wakes up from a dead sleep and assumes I was taking about her and planning an outing for her. If I, god forbid, say the word chicken, all hell breaks loose.

"Chicken!"

“Chicken!”

She learned her commands as a puppy. She knows sit and stay and down and turn, but she also knows walk, go, outside, shoes, leash, food, toy, platypus, chewy, poop, bath.

Cricket and her platypus.

Cricket and her platypus.

Those are the obvious things, but I’ve also noticed that she can understand context, even when her usual words aren’t in use. Even without the words “poopie butt” or “bath,” she can figure out that I’m planning to wash her in the sink, and she runs under her couch to safety.

"You can't catch me!"

“You can’t clean my poopie butt!”

My therapist’s Golden Retriever is six years old and just now studying to be a service dog. She needs her license so that she can help her dad, but this means that she has to learn a whole new set of signals, different from what she learned in her obedience classes way back when. This has become a problem. She is a very bright girl, but she is getting confused. Her poor forehead crinkles and she can’t decide if she’s supposed to sit, stay, turn around, or leave the room.

"Help me, please."

“Help me, please.”

No wonder dogs use smell and yips and nips to communicate with each other; they must think that the human world is a tower of babel, with all of our different languages creating utter confusion. For dogs, the smell of “female, spayed, eats a lot of chicken,” is the same around the world.