Books by my bedside 2021/April

I’m a little shocked by how long it’s been since I last posted about what I’m reading. Considering the rather desperate way I escaped into fiction during the pandemic, I might’ve been more forthcoming in sharing what I read for that release.

Now, back to my boilerplate:

I’ve noticed that I often bring up in conversation one or more of the fascinating books I’ve been reading lately, only to fail utterly at recalling titles or authors’ names. I’ll take this opportunity to at least make a handy reference available for anyone who cares to follow up on something I’ve said.

Just check my blog!

Non-Fiction

History

Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia by Semyonova Tian-Shanskaia, Olga

Writing (Short Story as Literature)

A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by Saunders, George

Fiction

Young Adult

Akata Witch and Akata Warrior by Okorafor, Nnedi

The Real Boy by Ursu, Anne

African/Feminist

Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga, Tsitsi

Mystery/Thriller

Billionaire Blend by Coyle, Cleo

A Deadly Influence by Omer, Mike

All the Devils are Here by Penny, Louise

Water Memory by Pyne, Daniel

Open House by Sise, Katie

After Alice Fell by Taylor Blakemore, Kim

Science Fiction

Shift by Howey, Hugh

Reading Notes:

Exploring the world via fiction in a year without travel

The young adult novel, Akata Witch (like its sequel, Akata Warrior), is set in Nigeria. Please see my footnote about the derogatory term in these titles if Nigerian languages are new to you as they were to me. As I have no wish to offend anyone, I will not repeat the word except within the context of the titles chosen by the works’ creator.

Like the author—Nnedi Okorafor—herself, the heroine, Sunny, is American born. Sunny is a teen living in Nigeria, an outsider due to her foreign birth, albinism, and then… all the usual stuff that sets apart the protagonist of a fantasy novel. This is not a cookie-cutter, Western fantasy! I found Okorafor’s created world fresh and fascinating, and the heroine and her friends richly detailed, complex, and very capable of keeping my middle-aged attention. My heart does tend to ache for the girl’s worried mother, however, as Sunny undertakes dangerous quests typical of the genre.

I enjoyed being immersed in the African setting of these titles. Missing my usual travels, this scratched my itch for adventure and “seeing” new places. The American-born teens in the story helped this reader make the transition to a better understanding of Nigerian culture from a perspective with which I’m more familiar.books I read April 2021 - Okorafor fantasy novels

Of course, the bulk of the story involves magical powers and the unseen world. Even if I made it to Nigeria, I doubt I’d encounter most of the creatures or powerful wizards Okorafor brings to life on her pages. As the pandemic has taught me, living through historically exciting events is not always easy or desirable.

Aside from an enjoyable young adult narrative, I appreciate Okorafor’s thoughtful approach to her craft. Regarding her success in a genre whose “great men” were often virulent racists who may well have shunned her, Okorafor wrote on her own blog:

“What I know I want is to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s deal with that .…as opposed to never mention it or explain it away.”

I believe this contemplative attitude helps explain why she opted to use a word with heavy connotations in her titles. I use her original titles as opposed to the less racially-charged British ones in an effort to show respect to the author.Copy of softbound library copy of Nervous Conditions by Dangarembga

Also set in Africa but half a continent away, I recently dove into Tsitsi Dangarembga’s masterful Nervous Conditions. It takes place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the mid-20th Century. I devoured the novel in just a couple of days, perhaps identifying so strongly with its protagonist, Tambudzai, because of her intelligence and drive to get an education against all obstacles.

Tambu reflects upon a new school with: “Most importantly, most wonderfully, there was the library, big, bright, walled in glass on one side and furnished with private little cubicles where you could do your homework, or simply lose yourself…in…books…”

I was a girl just like that.

Quote from page 199 about the wonderful library in a girl's school

Nervous Condition is the kind of book in which I highlight multiple passages. For the library’s sake, I do that these days by photographing myself pointing to the relevant spot on the page. Less typically for me, I even highlighted some of the author’s comments in the “book club” discussion section at the back of this novel.

Tambu’s story isn’t light or easy. Colonialism, racism, sexism, and poverty all conspire against her success, though she’s quite young when the story begins. She’s complex and complicated, and Dangarembga has drawn her beautifully. Even better, the entire novel is peopled by fully dimensioned, believable characters. Dangarembga writes with a deft hand.Quote highlighted from Nervous Conditions page 183

“Marriage. I had nothing against it in principle. In an abstract way I thought it was a very good idea. But it was irritating the way it always cropped up in one form or another, stretching its tentacles back to bind me before I had even begun to think about it seriously, threatening to disrupt my life before I could even call it my own.”

I finished the book quite eager to read its successor, 2006’s The Book of Not. It was unavailable at my local library, though the third volume, 2020’s This Mournable Body could be had. I couldn’t even find book two in our statewide searchable catalog for inter-library loans. Resigning myself to an Amazon purchase, I discovered that a new edition of The Book of Not is due to be released in May of this year. Used copies from 2006 are selling for about $50 each, which is more than I can bear to spend on a paperback. The vagaries of international publishing, perhaps?

I opted to purchase the Audible audiobook version of This Mournable Body—Dangarembga’s only English language audio release, so far as I can tell—because I wanted to directly support the author of a powerful novel that moved me so profoundly.

Also, no lie, it drove me crazy that I still don’t know how to pronounce many names from the story. Unlike European languages and concepts, I struggled to search out definitions for unfamiliar terms, photos of garments about which I was curious, or quick phonetic pronunciation guides. I’m hoping that the audiobook recording will offer me the chance to hear these names spoken by a more educated narrator.

I’ve heard people argue about a lack of rich cultural heritage outside of their narrow conception of the “civilized world;” it’s hard to appreciate what you can’t see because your back is turned!

Segueing not very neatly from far away in distance to far away in time, I must comment on Hugh Howey’s sequel to Wool: Shift. They’re both part of the Silo Saga. These are really good books—if you can tolerate a dystopian future.

My librarian friend The Priestess recommended Wool to me during a weekend away together. I was complaining about how poorly most algorithms do in offering me literary recommendations. I don’t know if that’s true for anyone else, but Amazon and Good Reads do not get me at all. She’d heard good things about it, but not read it herself, I believe.

I enjoyed Wool. It was a fun read, I finished it… then I didn’t think about it again for several years. Somehow, during the pandemic, Shift came to my attention. I think, since Mr. Howey originally self-published via Amazon, that it may have been free to read with Kindle Unlimited. I was definitely hunting that source much more actively than usual in the early shutdown days when I lost weekly library access.

Here’s why I absoluely must mention Shift: I have never before read a sequel and been so much more impressed by it than I was by its precursor. If anything, I’m used to being disappointed by middling follow-ups to novels I loved. That sounds strange, because Wool was a good book. Shift struck me as an even better one, and much more profound.

Consider the Silo Saga if you enjoy Sci Fi and don’t mind reading about the end of the world in the middle of a pandemic disaster.

Myriad mysteries

The string of casual flings I carry on with light murder mysteries continues. Thankfully, our local library opened for pre-ordered, curbside lending after a month or two of darkness, but I have also relied more heavily on the monthly free titles for Amazon Prime members (most of which are mediocre, but they do pass the time) and digital psuedo-purchases, which I loathe on principle.Two Kindle ebook readers, one labeled kids, the other says Mom's

No, if I don’t have a copy of a book or song I can pass to my heirs when I die, I have not purchased it. I’ve rented a license to use my copy during my lifetime. There’s nothing wrong with the model, if it’s what people want, but calling these transactions a purchase strikes me as fraudulent! Stepping down from soapbox…

A Deadly Influence made a pretty fun read, but a single sentence late in the book stopped me cold, prompting me to check the author’s name and confirm that he must be a man. It was a description of an outfit that the protagonist put on to go out and meet a date… and it was so laughably bad, I guessed right that moment that a non-fashionable male had written its description.

The storyline there involves a professional police negotiator, Abby, the calm presence who talks down the guy on the ledge or the hostage holding one with a gun to someone’s head. She (the protagonist) was very believable, except for her dressing up scene, realistically, lightly flawed, yet still likeable. Peeking inside life in a modern cult or two also made this novel stand out from my crowd of similar whodunits. It’s one of the few Amazon freebies I’ve read where I will watch for sequels. I’d like to see Abby’s character develop, and A Deadly Influence ended on a bit of cliffhanger though one I admittedly saw coming, but I didn’t mind.

Better writing through considered consumption of literature

Finally, I can’t leave this post without some discussion of Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. I’m so in love with this book at the moment! Full disclosure: I’m only 4/7 done with it as it was due back to the library and had holds so I couldn’t renew.

George Saunders teaches creative writing at Syracuse. The premise of the book is to explore seven classic works of Russian short fiction, then tease out lessons to improve our own writing from literary greats Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol.

The stories are magnificent. So are Saunders’ essays!Section heading for Tolstoy's Master & Man (1895) from the book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain

Perhaps the author selected just those few stories which are truly special. More likely, I have failed to read enough of the Russian masters. Technically proficient? Yes. Moving, emotionally rich? Definitely. Yet, somehow, this book is also a great deal of fun. I wish Saunders were my teacher though I’ve already spent far more time in Syracuse than I ever wished to.

I picked this up in order to plan a literature unit for my home educated teen. I thought it would complement the Russian History we’re doing this year. Note to home schoolers: it really, really does! I planned to peruse it, make some notes, then set the child to work on Saunders’ readings and my assignments over the summer term. Instead, I fell into the book myself, only reluctantly returning it on time because I’d foolishly let it sit too long on our library shelf before starting in.

Consider pairing A Swim in the Pond in the Rain with viewing the Great Courses video offering History of Russia: From Peter the Great to Gorbachev taught by Mark Steinberg. Lesson 21: Peasant Life & Culture is particularly apropos, but everything from Lesson 8 (The Decembrist Rebellion) to 25 (War & Revolution) will enhance your appreciation for the context of those stories Saunders offers.

† IMPORTANT NOTE: Please be aware that the unfamiliar word—if you only speak English—in the title, Akata Witch, has derogatory connotations for some Africans and African Americans.

The first book was given a new title for publication in the UK and Nigeria for that reason (What Sunny Saw in the Flames.) My internet research was cursory, of course, since I know no African languages. In spite of many contradictory definitions across the web, my best understanding is that the word is Yoruba—or possibly originated from the Fanti tribe—and is literally defined as an animal (maybe cat or fox.) The emphasis is on an uncivilized creature living outside his/her/its appropriate milieu. I’m not qualified to explain the term beyond this attempt at literal translation.

I wanted to discuss this book, but I hesitated to blindly post a sensitive phrase without this acknowledgement. Read about the term’s slang usage on Urban Dictionary if you’d like to learn more.

YES! CLV’s Virtual Village is great remote language learning for kids

COVID-19 tipped at least half the world over, and then we all got to sort through the mess and try to sift a life of our own out of it. For parents, remote learning—and some emergency, un-planned-for home education—has been one of the biggest transitions to negotiate.

school supplies - 1Home schooling challenges those of us who chose it enthusiastically; it’s an even taller order for those reacting to unprecedented interruptions in modern school systems. Finding the right resources can make or break parent-led education efforts. Today I’ll share my child’s experience with foreign language programs offered by Concordia Language Villages (CLV).

I’ve posted in the past about attending in person “family camp” at CLV’s German language facility, Waldsee. Learn more about summer camp here.

Waldsee Wilkommen - 1

Fast Facts about Concordia Language Villages’ online “Virtual Village” programs

I’ll format this as fast facts* in an attempt to efficiently answer the unfamiliar reader’s likeliest questions.

I’m rushing to post this before the spring semester begins for academic credit programs, because attendance is vital—and mandatory!—for those looking to earn official credits. I’ll address any follow up questions in the comments, or add an update if I discover I’ve missed covering any major questions.

What is/are Concordia Language Villages?

In 1960, a Concordia College faculty member suggested an innovative immersion program for teaching foreign languages to children. Each language gets a summer camp “village” in Concordia’s home state, Minnesota, where participants hear, speak, live, and eat according to their target culture.

Visit CLV’s Who We Are page to hear their own full answer to this question.

The key point here is the language immersion approach. Showing up at camp, kids—even complete beginners—are immediately plunged into a monolingual world in their chosen target language. CLV has spent decades building their unique pedagogy to support an efficient transition that brings children from their comfortable native language to at least basic functionality in a new one.

It’s amazing how fast that can happen in a prepared environment!

Which languages are taught at CLV?

Fifteen (15!) languages are offered in CLV’s full program, but I’ll stick with those available in virtual form in 2020-21 for this post. Those are, in alphabetical order:

  • Arabic
  • Chinese
  • Danish
  • Finnish
  • French
  • German
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Norwegian
  • Portuguese
  • Russian
  • Spanish
  • Swedish

It is important to note that only the most popular of these languages are offered in the longer term, more intensive sessions at CLV.

What kind of online class is a “Virtual Village”?

First let me clarify that CLV is offering three types of virtual experience for kids. There are

  • Clubs,
  • Classes,
  • and Academic Year High School Credit programs.

Some languages offer adult learning and there’s also German family programming. Since I’ve not tried those, I can’t offer a review, but my in person Family Camp experiences with CLV have been excellent.

Most languages only offer Clubs. These meet once a week for one hour per week, and sessions are six weeks long. Consider this a playful supplement to home or school education. Clubs make sense for kids who still attend hybrid or remote school who would like to practice a foreign language or gain exposure to a new language they may be curious about studying.

CLV Classes are akin to many other “online home school” courses I’ve found for my own kids. These meet twice a week for an hour per session (30 minutes for grade schoolers); as with Clubs, a Class is a mere six week commitment.

High School Credit virtual village programs are offered in:

  • French,
  • German,
  • Italian,
  • Japanese,
  • Norwegian,
  • and Spanish.

The spring term starts soon—January 26, 2020—so don’t hesitate if you want to enroll your teen.

Because the High School Credit program is accredited and offers 180 or more hours of instruction for the full year, home schoolers can rely upon it as a complete unit of study. When my son applies to college, for example, CLV’s Virtual Credit German class will appear on his “high school” transcript alongside the courses he’s taken at local colleges.

Pupils enrolled in institutions may be able to transfer this credit to their school in order to advance levels or free up time for taking other courses, but that would be at your individual school’s discretion. I’ve had arguments with friends about the value of credit programs outside of public school enrollment when said school disdains anything they didn’t offer themselves. I can’t prove it, but I’d guess colleges will always be more impressed by the kid who studied anything extra vs. those who stuck with the routine offerings of narrow-minded, parochial districts.

Who can join Virtual Village sessions?

  • Clubs are open to kids age 8-18
  • Classes are offered for Elementary (30 minutes/week), Middle, and High school levels
  • and Academic Year High School Credit programs are for 9-12th graders.

Is a CLV virtual offering worth the steep price tag?

My family’s answer is a resounding: Yes! That doesn’t mean the numbers will add upso well for every family.

The basis for my answer? Our older child attended two weeks of Virtual Villages summer camp, in Russian and German. He has been enrolled in an academic credit program this fall, and we opted to continue with the spring session based upon the program’s quality.** Our younger child will be joining a CLV Club in January 2021.

Virtual “summer camp” weeks in 2020

One week of CLV Virtual summer camp cost $325 in 2020. We were so grateful they pulled together a program at all, and my son enjoyed participation online better than he did going in person. Note that this opinion comes from a true introvert!

Online “camp” was not really the equivalent of a traditional week on site at one of language villages, however. It wasn’t nearly as immersive. Then again, it was 1/3 the cost.

Academic Year Virtual High School Credit for 2020-21

By autumn 2020, CLV started hitting its virtual stride. Probably because there was a lot of relevant course material available from their history of hosting on site academic credit programs, this experience has been a valuable one for my home schooled kid. There are two class sessions a week, plus required homework assignments to be completed in the meantime.

A couple of mandatory book purchases were required for the year to the tune of about $35. Admittedly, I didn’t follow up on more esoteric borrowing options after ascertaining my local library was unable to supply a copy of either European title.

Be aware that CLV credit programs cost more than in state tuition for courses at our local community college. Our local community college doesn’t offer German or Russian, however. It’s more aligned to the cost of private college tuition: expensive! That said, if you have a younger teen or concerns about how your child would fit in with a mature college crowd, CLV’s program is designed specifically to educate secondary school students.

In a good language class, it’s vital for the students to mix and chat with each other. Not all 14 year olds are ready to engage in casual conversation with college students.

I’m very comfortable describing the educational value of Concordia’s unique methodology as being equal to or better than my own experience of college level language courses, which I’ve taken at three universities, one public, two private. My experience at CLV family language camp compared favorably to the most challenging, stimulating class I ever took: a semester of full immersion Japanese at Cornell University.

For dollars and cents specifics, take this comparison I pulled off the internet: Harvard University offered a 7 week, virtual due to the pandemic Chinese language class (4 college credits) for $3,340 in 2020. CLV’s Japanese language spring semester program lasts 24 weeks, offers one “high school credit,” and costs $3,860. In my planning notes from previous years, I’d noted that the CLV summer “sleepaway camp” credit for which the participant would earn high school credit cost $4,830 for the four week camp.

Comparing these programs is more apples-to-apples than looking at less sophisticated local offerings, though lucky you if you can find something better and cheaper in your neighborhood!

CLV Classes

For those who can’t even imagine spending so much on an extracurricular program—or for home educated kids who already use other resources to form the bulk of a year’s language credit—the CLV Classes might be a great fit. This is the one offering in CLV’s arsenal for which I haven’t enrolled either of my kids, so I’ll just share the posted details and price to put it in context.

A Class will meet twice per week. It costs $395 for a six week session. There are two more sessions available for registration this academic year in Spanish, for example. That would give you (2 hrs × 6 weeks) of instruction, possibly multiplied by two if your child does both sessions.

As a home educator, I use the “Carnegie unit” method of approximating how much time my kid should spend to equal a high school course. That means 120 hours of instruction. If you want to create a home school language class for your child, you would want to spend another 96 hours on other work in that language to roughly equate to a school class if you’ve signed up for two sessions of CLV Class; if this were just a spring semester course, cut that down to 36 additional hours.

I offer these numbers as a ballpark for concerned parents who didn’t intend to be home schooling, yet find themselves a year into a pandemic with under-educated children. I highly recommend free resources like Mango and DuoLingo for language skill supplementation; along with Mango access, I get Pimsleur audio CD’s from the local library for my home educated kid.

I’ve written about language acquisition tools for myself here and here and here. Presumably these same resources would be useful to teens and young adults.

CLV Club for extra-curricular, after school enrichment

Finally, the least expensive, least intensive CLV offering is the Club product. Clubs meet for one hour per week over six weeks; each session costs $195, and there are two more sessions this school year. I have enrolled a kid in one of the clubs, but it doesn’t start until tomorrow, so I can only describe the claims for now.

Campers at CLV Waldsee playing chess outdoorsClub will meet once per week, after school. It’s a 60 minute session, and it’s designed to be fun and enriching. My younger child gets a little language instruction at school, but, like most American middle schools, it doesn’t match my idea of academic rigour. I’m not expecting the Club to replace school language instruction, but to enhance it. I have a lot of trust in Concordia’s ability to make that happen.

Bottom line: why give CLV your tuition?

Growing up a middle class nerd in Oregon, if I’d have heard of the CLV program, I would have begged to attend. My parents would have told me it was too expensive! I’ve heard that a famous daughter of a president went, but I don’t have evidence for that assertion.

I highly recommend CLV’s summer camps for families that want to learn languages together, and for outgoing kids with a mild- to moderate- degrees of interest in foreign languages, or introverted kids with a passionate interest in the same. I’ve heard it argued that a family should just travel to the target nation for the same amount of money… but that will be less effective IMHO if you head to a nation where average adults speak excellent English when compared to your minimal-or-less knowledge of their tongue.

CLV has spent over 50 years developing a highly effective process for coaxing children into assimilating a new language and culture with all of their senses. The virtual programs are not quite as robust as the live experience, but they still represent an enthusiastic and thorough offering that brings knowledge to kids wrapped in a joyous appreciation for the value of cultural immersion.

The educational quality is undeniable, and the level of fun is pretty good, too. If schlepping your kids to Minnesota for an expensive camp was never a possibility, consider taking advantage of this year’s virtual offerings like my family has. Perhaps you will be as sold on CLV’s value as I am. Either way, your child will definitely further his or her knowledge of a foreign language, so long as s/he shows up and takes part in the exercises.

* Because anyone who has visited my blog before will know that I wasn’t blessed with a gift for brevity. There’s always more I want to say!

Accreditation by Cognia

For example, we would be in a position to consider enrollment in a private high school if our child hadn’t preferred home education. Subtracting tuition for CLV and community college courses, we still come out ahead financially vs. the full cost of prep schools in our region.

** Those who have studied German through the widely available Goethe Institut program will appreciate my son’s positive comparison of the CLV academic credit program with his prior level A2 Online-Kurs with that institution founded by the German government

DuoLingo rank in top 3% explains how I passed pandemic time

Perhaps because the pandemic gave me fewer distractions, I stuck with DuoLingo for most of 2020, primarily studying German and Spanish this time. I practiced there more than ever before, and I earned my longest continuing streaks.

I believe I created my DuoLingo account sometime during DS1‘s first year of home schooling, which would put that half a dozen years ago or so. My history with the platform is therefore fairly long, but my use has been sporadic. I come and go with all of my language studies, often in preparation for a trip, but I also use Pimsleur tapes and other resources, and I jump around between languages including those I started in school (Spanish, German, Japanese) but also occasionally French, Russian, or any other language I’ll be encountering in my travels.

Books foreign language learningI’ve tended to view DuoLingo as a game, a dabble, or a linguistic lark. I’m already on record on this point: I am a dilettante.

According to the 2020 Year in Review report Duo sent me this December, I ended up in this year’s top 3% of users. Who would’ve thought it? Yay, me!

DuoLingo 2020 Year in Review analysis

Whether these reports are a new feature, or if I’ve simply been “inactive” by winter in the past, this is the first time I remember receiving such a summary.

2597 minutes of language learning only averages out to about 7 minutes per day, roughly 50 minutes per week, so my minor obsession with the platform over the summer wasn’t too pathological. Nor is such a commitment sufficient, really, for anything except a nifty end-of-year ranking worthy of a self-congratulatory blog post.

Am I great at German now? Na ja, I’m afraid I still require subtitles to watch Nailed It! Germany or Dark on Netflix. Fluent, I ain’t!

Then again, the power of spaced repetition for retaining knowledge is undeniable. I’m hardly fluent in any language but my first, yet I have certainly cemented additional vocabulary in German and Spanish in 2020.

DuoLingo’s tag line is something like: “Learn a language in just 15 minutes per day.”

Analog wall clock showing 12:06The reality is that few will actually commit to the process, and almost no one can achieve fluency using any single tool. Even if you do commit 15 minutes per day to DuoLingo, you’ll be unlikely to be ready to address the United Nations without a whole lot of “something else” under your belt.

Also, the CEO is the person who invented CAPTCHAs, so there’s that working against DuoLingo’s place in my heart, too. I despise those stupid things.

Screen grab from DuoLingo showing 129-day streak achievementMany of us are susceptible to game-ification, however, so I encourage langauge learners to give DuoLingo a try. Extrinsic motivation isn’t such a bad thing for a necessary—yet repetitive—task like vocabulary study. I jealously guard my months’ long streak of continuous* days’ use of the platform. No stack of flash cards has ever kept me on track so continuously; not even the fear of low grades in college courses was as compelling as hoarding an imaginary currency called Lingots.

I’m 21 topics away from completing Level One of every available topic in German, the language I study most often on the platform. I’ll earn a completely meaningless Achievement dubbed “Conqueror” when I make it to that lofty(?) goal.

I’ve only topped out at Level Five on a single topic, Basics1 before the castle icon indicating Checkpoint One. It’s interesting, actually, recognizing from perusing the DuoLingo chat boards how some of us approach a language breadth-first, whilst others prefer a deeper dive, completing each topic up to its max in turn before moving on to the next.

I suppose the choice to do otherwise feels as obvious to other learners as mine does to me!

German has five Checkpoints or collections of topics, whereas Spanish has seven. Some languages are more popular than others, and the platform seems to offer more content for the languages users demand. Rational of them, I suppose.DuoLingo screen shot showing one more Topic to complete before Checkpoint 3 Castle is reached

I’m just shy of Checkpoint Three en español.

DuoLingo is free, so it is well worth its price. Ads are a significant annoyance when using the iOS app, but I don’t see any in the web version running on my desktop though I do employ multiple ad blockers.

The number of ads shown seemed to increase with total usage on the iOS app; I might not have kept up with it if I’d seen ads after every lesson from the beginning like I do now.

It’s worth noting that the ads in the app occur only at the end of each topic lesson, so I can and do cover my screen with my hand until the close button becomes available, and unwanted screeching video noise pollution can be silenced when it does occur. Moderately annoying still ads outnumber intensely annoying video ads on DuoLingo in my experience, but the ads to which you will be subjected are no doubt dictated by some algorithm outside my ability to predict on your behalf.Calculation of 41 weeks + 3 days times minutes per day = 417,600 minutes

I appreciate DuoLingo’s year end report for an accounting of how I spent 2597 minutes of pandemic isolation. Now if only I had such complete records for the other 415,003 minutes of it. I have some doubt that the balance was spent in so edifying a manner!

* Full disclosure: I have used a “Streak Freeze” save at least twice, so my current 129 day streak is somewhat less impressive than it looks.

FYI French has nine, Russian has five, and Hebrew has seven. You’ll have to do the resources yourself for any of the other 32 languages available to English speakers that are not in my DuoLingo queue.

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.

Why I study 6 foreign languages recreationally

I must begin by admitting that I’m not really a polyglot. I’ve only mastered English. I’m not even brave about using my foreign language skills with friends or strangers. My brain is piping up with answers, but my cowardly lips remain zipped.

I have been a passionate fan of the very idea of language study since childhood, however, and I dabble in a few world languages. I wish, in a theoretical way, that I could speak with every person in the world. I know. I can be a little sentimental.

In high school, I studied Spanish (four years.)

In college, I took classes in Spanish (one more year), German (one year), and Japanese (one semester.)

Outside of academia, I’ve studied Russian (6 weeks at the Boston Language Institute) and Biblical Hebrew (synagogue based adult class), plus I’ve self-studied most of the above and also French. I’ve worked to learn at least a few common and helpful phrases in both Icelandic and Catalan before specific trips. I like to be a polite visitor.

I also avoid traveling without the ability to speak sentences I’d be too embarrassed to mime. I usually begin by memorizing, “Where is the toilet?” I’ve never visited any country without at least learning please, thank you, and hello. I also try to keep at least one exclamation of delight on the tip of my tongue: ¡Qué maravilloso!

Buy why else have I spent so many hours over so many years on this exercise when I have nothing concrete to show for it since good grades on a transcript decades ago?

I can feel my brain stretching

I’m a full-time, stay at home parent, so there’s no monetary gain. Then again, I’m a full-time, stay at home parent, so the intellectual workout ranks right up there as its own reward. Especially when my children were very young, and their care was so mind-numbingly boring, even listening to nursery rhymes in another language offered mental relief from feed, burp, change, repeat (and, occasionally, sleep…)

When I’m really working at integrating  new language into my working vocabulary, I can feel my brain stretching. I’m probably not the only nerd who thrills from the act of intense learning. Like the high that comes after aerobic exercise, there’s an emotional payoff to brain fitness. It’s also nice to imagine your brain looking better in a swimsuit getting healthier after each session.

Languages are inherently interesting, complex structures

Studying a romance language, for me, at least, was fun and interesting, but nothing like the kind of mind-blowing revelation that Japanese presented. I’m no linguist, either, so I can’t explain this deeply, but everything from sentence structure to word classes was, frankly, foreign. Learning even a little Japanese was like re-learning how to think.

Never in my life have I taken a more difficult, more stimulating, more thrilling class than my one semester of Japanese immersion at Cornell University. At the end of every session, I felt like the hero(ine) walking into the sunset behind the credits of an action movie. Victorious, and exhausted.

I’m forced to reconsider things I thought were obvious

Even when studying languages much more familiar—the short words in German, and the long words in the Latin-based romance languages—I find it delightful to make connections across cultures. Some modern words are obvious candidates for cognates. The world is so small and interconnected now, it’s hard to imagine new words like “computer” not carrying over into languages other than English.

But I loved discovering the word for “furniture” was so similar between Spanish (mueble), German (Möbel), and Russian (мебель)—they all use consonant sounds M-B-L with vowels appropriate to the target language. Most Russian vocabulary up to that point had been so strange. It made me reflect that the very notion of owning enough household stuff to require a collective name for it could be modern. Or perhaps the idea to name that stuff came from western Europe, or the people with better stuff adopted a name from the west so the word caught on with social climbers… I’m not sure. I don’t even know if the word is older in Russian as opposed to western Europe. I sure enjoy pondering the possibilities.

And, in Japanese, the color ao means all color shades of blue to green.* That stopped me in my tracks. Color is a spectrum, isn’t it, and at some point, we decide where the stopping point is between one shade and another. But I hadn’t thought of that before. Japanese taught me that.

I could go on and on about compound nouns and meanings within my own language that only became obvious to me after I recognized some interesting facet of a word in a foreign tongue, but the point is made and my zeal for this topic probably exceeds the bounds of decency.

Making an effort is the only way to combat entropy

There’s a running joke in our family that my husband’s most hated nemesis is entropy.

I think it is accepted knowledge that mental acuity is a use it or lose it thing. That’s the exercise analogy I used earlier. I believe the battle against entropy goes even deeper than that.

Making an effort, struggling to do better, learning something new, improving communication in the smallest way… every one of these things is a creative act. Creation is the opposite of entropy. Creation is an inherently positive act.

I learn in order to make the world a better place

I learn to make the world a better place, though my small efforts may have only infinitesimal effects.

I can live with that.

*There is a modern Japanese color word for green, which I believe was introduced only after World War II when Western influence became significant during the Occupation. There are also extra color words for various shades, including some of blue and green, like we have navy and royal (blues) or spring vs. hunter (greens.) You’ll want to follow up with someone much more knowledgeable than I to get the full story on Japanese color words.