Talky Tuesday Returns: Do the Duo

While Duolingo can help teach the basics of language, it’s not the best long-term tool. Here’s why.

As of today, I’ll have completed a streak on Duolingo, the language learning program, of 2,834 days. That works out to 7 years, 9 months, and a few days. However, I started Duo a few years before I decided to keep the streak going.

The primary language I studied there was Spanish, although I did attempt a few others with varying degrees of success, which taught me something very important: Duolingo is only going to get you so far. I managed to become completely fluent in Spanish, but didn’t have the same luck with German, Norwegian, Swedish, Hindi, Dutch, French, Romanian, or Irish.

A site like Duolingo really can’t stand on its own. With Spanish and German, I’d taken classes before, back in high school and college, although I studied Spanish for about three times as long as I studied German. The others, I had no experience in.

The other advantage I had when I took up Spanish again was immersion. I could set the car radio to Spanish language stations, as well as doing the same for all of my devices. Spanish language magazines are available everywhere here, as are books. Spanish TV or movies were also just as accessible.

The other languages, not so much, really. I think there is (or was) a classical music station that has a program entirely in German on weekend mornings, but the rest are a lot harder to find.

But it leads to a really interesting paradox because, despite using Duo on a daily basis, it really feels like someone just handed me a kid’s book in English and said, “Here, practice.”

I don’t know why I continue on, but there are a few very consistent student misunderstandings that crop up regularly that I find either amusing or infuriating, depending on my mood.

The first, and most infamous, is the first time the phrase “el agua está fría” comes up. This usually happens fairly early, and it sets off the same discussion every time in the comments.

A number of students will latch onto the “el,” a masculine pronoun, and say, “But ‘agua’ ends in -a, so isn’t it feminine?” Others, who are just a little more clever (or not) will ask, “Why is it fría and not frío here when el agua is obviously masculine?”

Yes, this one makes heads explode.

The simple answer is that “agua” is never masculine. The only reason the “el,” or masculine definite article (“the”) is there for the same reason that English uses “an” before words that start with a vowel — it’s easier to pronounce.

Any Spanish noun that starts with a stressed “a,” regardless of gender, will always take “el” in the singular because it’s just easier to say.

“La agua” is just as difficult and odd-sounding to a Spanish speaker as “a elephant” is to an English speaker.

This is very quickly followed by all of the nouns whose spelling doesn’t apparently follow gender rules, and this is another point when heads explode. Cometa, programma, planeta, mapa, and sistema are all masculine nouns despite the “a” at the end. Most of them come from Greek, and when grammar moved from Greek to Spanish, Greek nouns of this form were masculine, so they kept their gender. It’s just something that needs to be memorized.

There aren’t as many variations the other way around, with feminine nouns that end in “o,” but one of the first ones learners will run into is “mano” for hand, which is feminine: la mano. This is because the word came from Latin, where the adopted word form was feminine.

I’d like to say that the confusion people experience stops there, but it doesn’t. The next big one that English speakers just flip their shit over is translating something like “he is eating dinner” to “él come la cena.”

The reason that English speakers get so bent out of shape with this one is because they’ll insist that it’s wrong, and has to be a literal translation from English. “Él come la cena” translates from Spanish as “he eats (the) dinner,” but in Spanish it’s also understood to mean that he is eating dinner.

It’s surprising how many English speakers will try to argue that the only right translation is “él está comiendo la cena,” and while this does literally translate into “he is eating dinner,” it’s rarely used in Spanish. The reason for this is that the present progressive form in Spanish is generally only used when something is happening right this moment.

“Él está cayendo del avión” would work – “He is falling out of the airplane,” as in right this very moment, and as a way to stress the urgency of the situation. Dinner is rarely that urgent.

Don’t worry. There are more, and as soon as we get to discussing liking things (or other feelings about them) there are more exploding heads, particularly with the phrase “me gusta…”

I think the problem here begins when people first learn the greeting, “Mucho gusto!” It’s usually translated as “Nice to meet you,” or something like that, but easily leaves the impression that “gusto” is just the first-person present tense of the verb “gustar,” and so learners might go away thinking that “Mucho gusto” means “I like it a lot.”

It’s not, though. Here, gusto is just a noun, and a better translation that they should teach alongside it (but don’t) is, “Much pleasure.”

Then we get into the verb form of “gustar” to express liking for something and this is where explanations often fall down because they don’t start out with the lesson that the verb “gustar” in Spanish works the opposite of the verb “to like” in English.

In English, you say, “I like horses.” In Spanish, you’d say, “Me gustan los caballos.” The first thing that confuses learners is that the verb “gustar” here seems to be third person plural, and they wonder why it isn’t “me gusto los caballos.”

The simple explanation is that the object of the sentence is different. In English, horses are the thing that is liked by the speaker, or subject. I (subject) like (object). In Spanish, the horses are the subject and the speaker is the object, which is why the “backwards” grammar.

In Spanish, it’s literally (object) am pleased by (subject.) “Horses are pleasing to me.” The verb gustar matches the subject, which is why it’s plural when it refers to plural things even if the object is singular.

The two big things that Duolingo will never really teach you are the two most important things to learn in any language. The first is that the rules are not set in stone. In Spanish, masculine and feminine are not always determined by their spelling. Generally, they are, but there are exceptions, and people just need to learn these.

It’s the same in English with, for example, such a well-known “rule” as “I before E except after C, or when pronounced A, as in neighbor or weigh.” But there are all kinds of weird exceptions to this rule — in fact, probably more of them than actually fit the rule. Go ask Keith. He can tell you.

The other big thing is this: You cannot just translate literally from your language to your target language. That’s not how they work, and you’re just going to get in trouble that way. English and Spanish don’t even have the same number of words for “to be,” “for”,” or “on/in.” And Spanish word order can be very different because it can use pronouns before verbs to indicate who is doing what to or for whom.

English doesn’t have that feature plus it also always requires pronouns. In Spanish, it’s perfectly fine to say, “Como fresas,” and everyone will know that you mean, “I’m eating strawberries.” The “yo” (or I) is implied in the verb “como,” which is first person singular and might as well just translate as “I eat” in the first place.

It saves time and is a really great feature, although you’re always free to throw the pronoun in to remove ambiguity — for example in some tenses where the first and third person verb forms are the same, or when you’re using third person in general and the subject isn’t clear.

You can’t leave out pronouns in English, so a sentence like “Eats strawberries” doesn’t make sense. Who’s eating them? And in cases where the verb would be “eat,” leaving out the pronoun can make it sound like a command or ad slogan: “Eat strawberries!”

The flip side of this in English is that we get to leave out articles, though, where Spanish doesn’t. But, again, that’s just one more reason to never translate literally from one language to another. You really have to take the time to learn the word-order and syntax of your target language.

Talky Tuesday: Trying trilingualism

As I’ve mentioned here before, I took four levels of Spanish over five years in school middle and high school, so I ran out of classes at the end of my junior year. Being a total language nerd, I then took one year of high school German, followed by a semester of University German.

I swear that in the first week in Uni we learned more than I had in the first semester in high school.

I didn’t pursue either language in college because I focused on other areas, with a Major and double minors. Consequently, I forgot a lot of both.

Of course, it didn’t help that our Spanish 4 teacher pulled a fast one on us. She asked the class to vote on whether we wanted to study language (i.e., grammar, spelling, etc.) or literature. The vote was unanimous for language, but she taught literature anyway, figuring we’d learn the language that way.

Narrator’s voice: “We didn’t.”

We didn’t exactly start with the Spanish-language equivalent of Dr. Seuss, which didn’t help. Imagine taking a recent immigrant who’s only studied English for a couple of years and then tossing them Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.

They’d do what we did, which was go to the local library at Cal State University Northridge (CSUN), which we had access to use because we were public school students in California, although we couldn’t check out any books.

What we could do, though, was make copies of them, so we would go down there, find the English translation of the latest work, and either read it there or copy it so we could sound like we knew what we were talking about.

It was really a total waste of a year.

But then I started learning Spanish again as an adult about seven or eight years ago, starting with Duolingo as a refresher, and then using immersion via radio, magazines, TV, and so on. Listening to Spanish language stations in the car on my commute actually turned out to be the breakthrough for me.

And so, on my own, in about the same time I’d studied in high school, I achieved the level of fluency that I never did back then. I also got hooked on the unbroken streak on Duolingo — mine is currently six years, seven months, and about three weeks, although I was on Duo for a while before I started the streak.

But the thing is, Duolingo is pretty basic, and I’ve pretty much shot past anything they can teach me now, including all of the stories. So, recently, I decided to try something different.

I’d use Duolingo to learn German, but I would do it from Spanish. In technical terms, this would be learning my L3 in my L2. It’s actually working, because it forces me to not think in English at all, but there are some interesting collisions that happen between all three languages, because they have some words that are close and some that aren’t, and some that mean completely different things on two or all three of the languages.

A big one that constantly screws me up is “es.” In Spanish, “es” is the third person singular form of one of the two verbs for “to be.” In German, it is the third person neutral pronoun “it,” while the third person singular of the verb “to be” is “ist.”

In Spanish, you don’t have to use the pronouns because the verb endings imply them. In German, you always have to use the pronouns, the same as in English. (Well, proper English. We can omit them slangily.)

So the sentence “It is good” in Spanish could just be “Es bueno.” In German, it would be “Es ist gut.”

I can’t tell you how many times in a lesson I’ve started with that es and my brain shifts to Spanish right there, so I’ll enter “es gut” and get it wrong.

The other big difference is that German has three genders, while Spanish only has two — well, technically, but I won’t get into that here. The thing is, just as with Spanish, German grammatical genders bear no relationship to human gender.

That’s why a young boy is masculine while a young girl is neuter, and animal genders seem to have been assigned more on psychology than anything else. Bears and dogs are masculine, while cats and ducks are feminine, and horses are neuter.

I know a lot of English speakers who struggle with learning Spanish articles, but they’re really a lot simpler than German. For definite articles (aka “the”), Spanish has masculine and feminine singular (el, la) and their plural counterparts (los, las).

The only sneaky one is the combination that adds “to” before the masculine pronoun. To avoid having an “a” sound before an “e,” a + el becomes al.

Fun fact: this is the Arabic word for “the,” and wound up in a lot of words borrowed into Spanish and also English. Whenever you see one, realize that the original word was “the (something),” q.v. algebra, Alhambra, alcohol, etc.

Anyway, that gives us just five options in Spanish: el, al, la, los, las.

German starts out with three definite articles, masculine, feminine, and neuter: der, die, das. But the plural versions are not as straight-forward. In order, they are die, die, die. (By the way, that’s pronounced “dee,” and not the way it looks like it would be in English.)

So that one is simple, but there’s a catch. Unlike Spanish, German articles change as grammatical case does. That is, it depends on whether a noun is the subject of a sentence, or whether it’s the direct or indirect object, or has a relationship to another noun in the sentence — usually possession, but it can be descriptive as well.

That gives sixteen possible definite articles and, while some of the words repeat — like “die” taking up to spots above — you have to remember which ones go where.

Of course, language isn’t all difficulty, and some of the fun comes in when a sentence in one language  sounds like something filthy in another when it’s not.

For example, “Die Mädchen haben Hüte.“  Knowing that Mädchen means girl or girls (das or die is the only clue), this could easily sound like a reference to the restaurant Hooters, but it’s not.

It simply means “The girls have hats.”

Another, which sounds even filthier, is “Der Junge isst Nudeln.” If you’re an English speaker, you can be forgiven for thinking this means “The young man is nude.” Nope. It’s just a boy eating pasta.

In German, “bald” is not hairless (“calvo” in Spanish) but “soon.” And at the party last night, you might have seen Brunhilde rockin’ her Rock, which is a reference neither to stones nor to music, but the German word for skirt. (Also, pronounced with a long O, so “roke,” not “raak.”)

No, I have no idea why a German skirt is a Rock. The Spanish word makes so much more sense, really: “falda.” It just sounds more comfortable.

How the structure of questions differs between the three languages is interesting, too. In English and German, generally speaking, questions are in “VSO” order, meaning verb, subject, object: “Is Walter from Indiana?” or “Ist Walter aus Indiana.”

In Spanish, you have the option to do either, but it’s far more common to leave it as SVO and let inflection do the rest: “¿Walter es de Indiana?”, although “¿Es Walter de Indiana?” would be just as valid.

The key, again, is the inflection, with the rising tone giving away that it’s a question and not a statement, and this is why Spanish alone among the three has the upside-down punctuation at the beginning of the phrase. That’s so a reader will know when they see subject-verb that they are not reading a statement.

Finally, being the mongrel that it is, English goes both ways. The most normal way is VSO, but we can also use SVO to express surprise and, again, it’s all a matter of inflection. “Walter is from Indiana?” (Roll eyes, clutch pearls.)

In German, that construction would only ever be a statement of fact.

One other interesting thing about German, although I’ve seen it kind of fade away. They capitalize their nouns. Er, sorry… The German People capitalize all the Nouns!

We used to do this in English, and you can see it if you go back and read documents written by the Founders around the time the U.S. was born, the phrase “We, the People” being one of the more famous examples.

But even then, it was fading out as a standard and the capitalization was mostly used to highlight Principles that were Important and Abstract… Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness and the like. And note that in that sentence, pursuit, although it is a noun, is not capitalized.

The funny thing is that this seemed to have developed in German in the opposite way from how it vanished from English. They started out by only capitalizing the nouns referring to important concepts or people (like König, or King), but then started doing it all of them. It started in the 16th century and became official in the 17th, about a hundred years before English moved in the opposite direction.

And Spanish took an even more opposite extreme: A lot of what are capitalized as proper nouns in English are not in Spanish, like days of the week or names of months. It’s the same with titles of movies, plays, and books. Only the first word and any proper nouns are capitalized. Otherwise, nope.

For example, La guerra de las galaxias aka Star Wars: A New Hope.

I suppose it’s time to leave you with a joke that my University German professor, the late, great Frau Schulz-Bischof, told us.

A Spaniard, an American, and a German are talking about language.

The American says, “English is the most beautiful language in the world. Just look. We have the word ‘butterfly.’”

“It’s nothing,” the Spaniard replies. “Spanish is the most beautiful. In my language, your butterfly is ‘una mariposa.’”

There’s a long pause, and then the two turn to look at the German, who finally just blurts out, “And what is wrong with ‘Schmetterling?’”

She was from Hamburg, by the way, so she gets to tell that joke. Or got to.

Image source: Dhammika Heenpella / Images of Sri Lanka, (CC) BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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