Language learning gets silly: Duolingo and a love of mayo

I’ve read on the internet that some people think the worst part of Duolingo is its silly sentences.

Really? Wirklich?

Silly sentences are my very favorite part!

Screen shot of DuoLingo lesson about love and mayoA recent example?

Ich liebe dich nicht, ich liebe nur Mayo.

If you guessed that this sentence means:

I don’t love you, I only love mayonnaise,”

you would be correct.

Now the question becomes, do you love this sentence, or do you hate it?

It’s okay by me if you love this sentence and you love mayonnaise. This is a place for Really Wonderful Things, not judgement, at least so far as condiment choices go. Just don’t expect me to join you in tasting spicy hot sauces.

Condiment bottles: ketchup, mayo, mustard, harissaAt least one language learning blog complains that nonsense sentences do budding polyglots great harm. No one needs this sentence! Why study this?

And yet, for me, the process of practicing vocabulary can get a little dull. By the third repetition of the same phrase, I start to act out, if only in my mind.

Okay: more often than not, I act out outside of my mind, and by proclaiming dull stuff in loud, silly voices from my desk. My kids just adore this behavior while undertaking distance learning, as you can imagine…

Music iPod headphonesI suppose that there are dutiful users of Pimsleur and other audio language study programs who slog cheerlessly through the spaced repetition of those early, monotonous phrases.

My name is X.

I am from Y.

What is your name?

Do you come from Y?

I speak Z.

Do you speak Z?

For me, this inevitably leads to acting out these phrases in the most extreme accents and postures I can manage whilst attempting to approximate the correct “target” foreign accent in a Monty-Python-esque masquerade.

When I’m laughing, I’m learning. Rote repetition turns into a bit of fun. If I’m internalizing the correct grammatical construct, does it matter if my sample sentence borders on insanity? I expect there are lunatic speakers of every living language.

Duolingo loves to talk about ducks and what they do. It’s quirky, but I think it is actually one of the better aspects of the program. The weirder the sentence, the more attention I end up paying to an otherwise predictable practice question. Contrary to what the critics suggest, I can see differences between how the platform presents unique languages that reflect each diverse culture.

I have less loving things to say about the evolving intrusiveness of ads in the ecosystem. Duolingo is far from perfect, but very much worth its price: free.

With a little sprinkle of silly spice, Duolingo has recently kept me committed to a 58 day streak where I’m practicing two to four languages every day. There are worse ways to season one’s studies!

My level varies between 1 and 3 between each of the languages I study on Duolingo, so I’ve seen more than just the most basic introductory lessons for at least German and Spanish.

I would advise, however, that beginning a completely new language on Duolingo seems unlikely to be satisfying or particularly effective, especially where a new alphabet is required. I’ve had classroom exposure to both Russian and Hebrew, but my alphabetic weakness renders the lessons too hard on the mobile platform where you get five strikes (lose 5 ♥) and you’re cut off for the rest of the day. I only study non-Roman-alphabetized languages on my desktop computer with Duolingo for that reason: you don’t run out of hearts on the desktop! Even French stymies me in writing; silent letters are my kryptonite. Sigh.

When a parent who doesn’t speak German takes the kids to camp at Waldsee family week

I’m sure there are no dummies at Waldsee*, but I can guarantee you I felt like one upon arrival at German family week. Showing up at language immersion camp for the first time is no joke!

„Ich habe vor 20 Jahren deutsch gelernt“

More than twenty years ago, I took one academic year of German in college. I was hardly showing up without a clue, but neither am I a fluent speaker of Deutsch. Even straight out of an A grade in German 102, I wouldn’t have been ready for this. For a few minutes, it feels like running into an intellectual brick wall.

Then again, Waldsee is a celebration of one’s potential to learn a language as much as it is a shrine to language at its most pristine. These camps exist because students want to learn, and people want to communicate with each other.

„Wir sprechen jetzt Deutsch und… we’re going to like it!

The most challenging part of a six day immersion program in a language I’d merely dabbled with decades before was day one, hours one to three. Walking up to the registration table to present our camp “passports“ and check in brought me up short. I’m a smart cookie, but I felt like an idiot. What was anyone talking about? Exactly how far was I going to be carrying my enormous bag full of bedding and bug spray? Why was I here with these fiendish Teutophiles and how could I be expected to parent under these conditions?

By the time we made it to our bunkhouse, we’d carried our overstuffed suitcase up the wrong steps, finally found the right door, then the right floor, but I’d angry-whisper-yelled at my poor child more than once long before the bags were dumped on the bed. If you’d asked my opinion in that first hour, I’d have told a very different story about Waldsee in particular and language immersion in general than the one I’ll give you now. There might have been colorful language, in English, but I kept it under my breath so as not to spoil the immersion environment for others.

A lot of people wonder how much they could possibly learn in one week (six days, really) at Concordia Language Village’s family week, especially if the child is learning a language the parent never studied. Parents who hear about our trip to Waldsee are usually fascinated, but clearly hesitant to imagine themselves “back in school” learning a foreign language of all things.

Here’s my take for the parent who’s eager for their child to learn (or the parent of the eager child desperate to attend camp, but reluctant to go without parental support.)

Even if you don’t know one word of the target language, the staff will get you through the week and your kids will learn a lot. You will also have fun! If you are happy to be there, the experience will be joyful, regardless of German learned.

How much you actually learn is probably dependent upon your facility for languages (do you learn them easily?), the amount of effort you care to put in, and maybe the amount of parenting your own situation requires. If you bring a toddler or all six of your kids, you might nap more and study less! Either way, you can have a good time with your family and rest assured you are contributing to your child’s education. They will learn more—and more easily—than you do. You don’t have to know anything about your target language to make CLV family week worthwhile.

If you know you are heading to Waldsee, though, you will probably enjoy it a lot more if you take a stab at some self-study materials before camp. There are free language learning apps like Duolingo, free language learning software programs like Mango available from most public libraries, and lots of great recorded options like Pimsleur and Living Language to listen to in your car. (Both of these audio CD systems were also free from my local library.) Most of us won’t achieve fluency with these study aids, but even a brief grounding in the target language should reduce the shock and awe stage of immersion camp.

My experience, with modest background in German, a reasonably good ear for languages, and some preparation in the weeks before camp can best be expressed thusly:

We left camp, rode the bus to Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport, and embarrassed ourselves for the next several hours by continually addressing befuddled airport workers in German.

The effect lasted about a week in our home. Both of us were defaulting to beginning sentences in German, in spite of our relatively low level of speaking ability. From my perspective, that’s a learning success, for my child, and for the lifelong learner in me.

*Concordia Language Village (CLV) foreign language immersion summer camp for German in Bemidji, MN