Sunday, November 23, 2014

Learning a Second Language: Some Whys and Hows

The first two things I want to discuss as I take this blog in a new direction are:
  • Why I’m learning Italian, rather than, say, Spanish (which I studied in high school), or French, or any one of scores of other languages.
  • Some of the materials I’m using in my Italian studies.
The first item is explained easily. First, given my Italian heritage, I’ve always had an urge to speak the language. Second, Dave and I want to spend an extended period of time in Europe after we retire, and northern Italy is a good area to use as a home base for traveling around the continent. Third, when Dave and I go to Italy next fall, I want to be able to have at least a few conversations with people in their language.

The second item is more involved. The primary language instruction tools I’m using are:

Pimsleur’s Italian
I stumbled across this last spring when Dave and I first started talking about spending a significant chunk of time in Italy when we retire. This method is based primarily on listening and imitating/speaking. Written materials are not introduced until well into the course, and those are used in a very limited fashion. 

Positive things about this method are:
  • It offers instruction in a wide range of languages.
  • One hears and imitates proper pronunciation from the beginning.
  • Fine points of grammar are explained at appropriate points in the lessons, for example, when teaching new expressions that deviate from the norms.
  • Each lesson is 25-30 minutes in length, which makes it nearly perfect for using while commuting to and from work. I’ve been purchasing the CDs, which I then install on my computer and iPod. After I began purchasing the CDS, I discovered that another version of the course is available for direct download as mp3 files. Oh, well...
  • It was one of the first methods to use “spaced repetition” as a teaching and learning method. This simply means that, when new vocabulary is first introduced, it is used frequently. Over time, however, the intervals between usage of particular terms are expanded, and terms are eventually repeated just often enough to reinforce (or re-teach) them as one continues adding new tools to one’s language set.
Negative aspects of this method are:
  • It is very expensive, perhaps the most expensive language system available in the USA.
  • It doesn’t utilize newer, interactive technologies that have become available since Pimsleur devised his method 50-60 years ago. His method was cutting edge then, now it is old school. It’s still effective, but it’s not nearly as appealing to a new learner as more modern language learning systems.
This is an electronic learning system created by and for a new generation of language learners. A word of warning, which I’ll put here because it has both negative and positive points: spelling counts. I don’t mind (too much) when I get dinged for honest-to-goodness mistakes, but I absolutely hate being penalized for typos. Then again, I can (and should) guard against this by reading my answers carefully before hitting the “enter” button. As you can see, this “criticism” may say more about me than about the program.

Positive aspects of this learning system are:
  • It offers lessons in a wide array of languages.
  • It is an Internet-based system that uses interactive technologies, including computers, tablets and smartphones. Lessons are synchronized across all of one’s devices, so that one can pick up any device and begin exactly where one stopped at the previous session.
  • It’s fun for anyone who loves using computer and gaming applications. Much like the world of computer games, Duolingo users accumulate points as they advance to higher levels of achievement. The points can be used to “buy” stuff in the Duolingo shop. Most of my purchases consist of extra “hearts,” which allow me additional chances to complete a lesson without getting sent back to the beginning. Anyone who has ever played a computer game will recognize that Duolingo hearts are analogous to the extra lives that one acquires in order to keep advancing through the game without penalty. I only use extra hearts if I’m near the end of a lesson and feel ready to move forward.
  • It introduces a good range of vocabulary quickly.
  • It is based on sound, scientific principles of language learning.
  • It provides opportunities for hearing, speaking, writing and reading the target language. The lessons utilize all of these skills, and an “immersion” section that contains articles for translation practice offers in-depth reading, translating and writing practice.
  • It has many user forums in which users can exchange ideas, links to other resources, etc.
  • It is free. It offers an amazing range of materials at absolutely no cost. And that's a beautiful thing. 
Negative aspects of Duolingo are:
  • The “voice talent” used to record the lessons is not always top-notch. It sounds computer-generated to me (and Joshua), but the “voices” are discussed in the forums as if they belong to real people, so I may be wrong about that. For example, there is a lengthy thread in the Italian forum that contains many complaints about “Francesca.” I was relieved when I found this thread, because I had been thinking my difficulties in understanding her were primarily due to my crummy hearing. Apparently, there is a new “voice” named Carla that has been made available recently to a limited number of users on a trial basis. Those who have heard her (I’m not one of them, unfortunately) say she’s much better than Francesca and they wonder why Carla hasn’t been made available to all of the Italian learners yet.
  • There is little, if any, explanation of grammar. This can be frustrating when one is trying to piece together the rules and norms, only to be confounded by an expression that doesn’t follow the expected pattern.
Anki is an electronic flash card system that has transformed an old technology. You may remember creating, or buying, 3x5 flash cards when you were learning French, Spanish or German (perhaps even Latin?) in high school. Anki allows you to do that with your computer.

Positive features of this system are:
  • Flash cards are stored both online at the Anki website, and on one’s devices. This means that, unlike Duolingo, one may use the flashcards without being connected to the Internet.
  • Flash card learning sessions can be synchronized via the Anki website to ensure that all devices are tracking one’s progress together.
  • Flash cards can be purchased, or created by the user. I create my own, as I enjoy the process of finding audio samples and pictures. I believe that the search and creation processes lodge the content more firmly in my mind than would occur if I simply spent a few seconds per day reviewing someone else’s product.
  • Flash cards can be reviewed in just a few minutes a day. So, even if one is pressed for time on any given day, one can still take 5-10 minutes to review a set of cards.
  • The system automatically records the intervals at which content should be reviewed. This is done according to algorithms based on the principle of – you guessed it – spaced repetition. Therefore, over time, one covers all of the available content, rather than just reviewing the same few words or phrases every day.
Negative features of this system are:
  • Creating flash cards is time consuming.  I enjoy it, for the most part, but it definitely requires a significant time commitment. I generally spend an hour or two on the weekends creating new cards.
  • The cards are only as good as their source. If you create your own cards, you control the content completely. If you want good cards, you’ll have to work hard to make good cards. If you purchase ready-made cards, you’ll want to be confident that your source is giving you correct information.
Those are the three primary tools I’m using to learn Italian. I also use a variety of other tools – a discussion group, books, news articles, music, movies, opera, etc. – that I may discuss in the future. Now, I know I said last week that I was going to start writing some of this blog’s content in Italian. As promised, I will – but not tonight. For one thing, this post is already quite long. More to the point, there is no way I can repeat everything I’ve written here in Italian. Therefore, I won’t even attempt it. Instead, I’ll close by saying this: if you’re thinking about learning a new language, or reviving an old, forgotten one, check out some of the new tools that are available online now. Who knows? You may find something that inspires you to just do it.

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