Friday 5: Rest

When did you last need a few days of complete rest and nothing else?

I feel like that every day, to be honest. I had a really gnarly chest cold for most of February that kept me relatively housebound. I’m better now, but the first two weeks were unpleasant, to say the least.

 

How do you keep yourself occupied when you have to be in bed all day and night?

Music; reading; reviewing vocabulary on Anki, Memrise, DuoLingo, and Clozemaster; sleeping.

 

Who do you most want to hear from when you have to withdraw to your bed for a few days of rest?

It depends. Whenever I have to go into self-imposed quarantine, it means I have a lot of time to just think; often, I’ll remember a story or a question I had for someone in particular. But usually I can just send them a message on Gchat or Facebook, so I don’t have to make immediate plans to see them when I’m feeling better.

 

What adverse effects have you experienced while staying in bed for a few days?

I don’t like the deconditioning and loss of stamina/energy I notice when I feel better enough to go running again.

 

When you first notice a few symptoms, are you more likely to shut everything down right away, or try to power through until you don’t have a choice anymore?

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I try to take it as easy as possible right from the beginning, including lots of garlic, zinc, and lemon tea.

Thoughts on DuoLingo Mobile

I’ve talked about DuoLingo and its strengths and weaknesses before. But as I’ve finally sorted out how to add international keyboards to the DuoLingo app, I thought it would be appropriate for me to share a few thoughts on the mobile version.

I will preface this (and my previous review of DuoLingo) with the caveat that as of this post, I use DuoLingo for two languages: Russian and Turkish. The lessons for each language are designed by different groups of people and cover different topics; as far as I can tell, DuoLingo doesn’t enforce any kind of strict universality across different languages. Later Russian topics include “History and Fantasy” and “Spirituality,” which Turkish lacks; instead, there’s “Nature” and “Turkey.” So what I see in my trees will not 100% reflect what you see in yours (unless you’re also using English to study Turkish and Russian).

At some point I will have to work my way through the English tree and offer my commentary on the available material, but that’s another post altogether. A study has linked competency in DuoLingo with competency in that gold standard, TOEFL, but it was a study sponsored by DuoLingo so it’s worth taking with a grain of salt (for now). For now, I will repeat my earlier concern with DuoLingo: it’s great for grammar and vocabulary, but lacks in long-form reading and writing practice. Also, returning to the Turkish tree has only reinforced my belief that DuoLingo requires supplementation to truly be effective; relying only on DuoLingo will not get you far. Fortunately, there are free options like Anki and Lang-8 to fill in the gaps.

What are the differences between DuoLingo web and DuoLingo mobile?

First and foremost, I want to say that the DuoLingo app has been really well modified for mobile. It’s really easy and intuitive to use. If you had to do as much typing as you do in the web version, it would be really tedious. Instead, you have the option of drag and dropping words. You can also opt out of the listening exercises without any penalty, which is great when you’re on a noisy commute or waiting room.

As far as structure and guiding principles go, there obviously isn’t much different. You still have all four language areas represented, there’s still a spaced repetition model that guides review, and there’s still a focus on individual words or single sentences instead of longer texts. What’s different is the implementation, though it does seem to depend on the language you’re taking. For example, in Turkish DuoLingo Mobile, one of the exercises on the mobile app is matching word pairs—a useful and effective review exercise that seems completely absent from Russian. Other things are consistent across both languages (and presumably across the entire board). For example, if you choose to review a specific lesson (rather than the catch-all “strengthen” option), right at the beginning DuoLingo mobile will show you the specific words that you’re weakest on (and that will presumably be the focus of the review). It also balances the lowered difficulty of dragging and dropping words with the increased difficulty of no translation hints. The occasions where you do have to write things out, of course, you get your standard mouseover translations.

The gradient on DuoLingo mobile is more nuanced, which I like. Here is the last leg of the Russian tree as of my progress today, as viewed on the web:

DuoLingoBars2

 

There’s a clear demarcation of five levels, and you can see that “Science,” “Politics,” “Colloquial,” and “Nothing” are all at the same level: 4 out of 5. Here’s how the same lessons look in the mobile app at exactly the same time:

 

DuoLingoBars

At a glance you can see that “Colloquial” and “Nothing” are weaker than “Politics” and much weaker than “Science.” I suspect by tomorrow they’ll both be at 3 out of 5. This is really great if you want to work ahead and target (relatively) weak areas; I wish the web version did this.

And, finally, in the mobile version you have the option to spend your lingots on cute costumes for the little owl mascot. It’s trivial and obviously imparts no new content or skills, but it’s adorable and that’s enough for me.

Which version do I prefer?

While I spend most of my day in front of a computer, making the web-based version of DuoLingo more or less a habit by now, I have to say I actually prefer the mobile version. Thanks to matching word pairs and cut-up sentences, there is a greater variety of activities on the mobile version than on the web. In terms of both usability and challenge, it’s probably a little easier on mobile than web, which means that on tough days I’m more likely to keep up my practice on my phone than at my computer. Challenge is important, but so is repetition. Whatever gets you to keep at it and keep training is good.

Hey, what about the Windows version?

I don’t use Windows myself, so I can’t really comment on it. But feel free to comment or Tweet at me (@KobaEnglish) with your thoughts—that’s something I would love a guest post about!

Literal Translations Versus Fixed Phrases

When is a cup not a cup? When is a glass not a glass? Does it depend on what’s inside? What is the balance between literal translation and the adoption of fixed, familiar phrases in the target language?

For example, if a native English speaker were to offer someone tea, there would be a number of different ways to do it. Outlining all of them here would be tedious and beside the point, but I want to focus on which vessel would be named (if named at all). Pop quiz! Fill in the blank:

“Would you like a _____ of tea?”

And let’s put aside partitives like “bit” or “spot”; let’s look specifically at “cup” and “glass.” Is there one you prefer?

For me, and I think for many native speakers, the appropriate semantic unit for tea is a cup. It’s what flows (ha, ha) naturally. And, indeed, we usually have tea in solid, opaque drinking vessels that can’t rightly be said to be made of glass.

Image courtesy Miya

So the discussion over on DuoLingo’s Russian partitive lesson about glass and tea is fascinating and (as of this blog post) has over 100 comments!

Here is the explanation of the vocabulary word “стакан” (stakan):

Russian differentiates between a number of drinking vessels. Стакан is what you call a “glass” in English: typically, a cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle.

But when faced with an expression that would literally be translated as “a glass of tea,” should you translate the words literally, or translate the concept of “a vessel of tea” into the most common and most likely English phrase?

duolingo-glass-tea

Of course, the point of DuoLingo is to teach you vocabulary and grammar, not to teach you how to translate longer pieces of writing in context. To that end, it sacrifices a natural-sounding English answer to drive home the difference (in Russian) between a “glass” and a “cup.”

But for many users (myself included) it just feels…wrong. This question has a few simultaneous discussions of essentially this issue; this one is the most typical and the most informative.

duolingo-glass-tea-2 duolingo-glass-tea-3

 

Things also segued into how tea is consumed globally, with users from other parts of the world (north Africa and Turkey, among others) pointing out that having tea in a glass—the “cylindrical vessel made of glass, with no handle” described by DuoLingo—is commonplace where they live.

Black tea in Turkey. // Image courtesy Henri Bergius

So if DuoLingo is insisting on a subtlety that sounds unnatural to many English speakers because of the customs of our particular countries (to have tea in one kind of vessel but not other), how about in translation? If I’m reading a story where the character in the original Russian has a стакан of tea, has something of the nuance or subtlety been lost if the translator chose “cup of tea” instead of “glass of tea”? Is the purpose of a translation to remain as literally faithful as possible to an original (to translate), or to take a story and convey its concepts in the most natural way possible in a target language (to localize)?

I think the same day I stumbled over this thorny issue on DuoLingo, someone shared an article from the New York Review of Books on new attitudes on Russian to English translation and the work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This is the same issue writ large; it’s moved from mere teacups and glasses to entire sentences and syntax. It’s turtles all the way down, only instead of turtles it’s semantics.

There is also the question, again, of who an English translation is really for. Considering the prevalence of English worldwide (and the fact that non-native speakers vastly outnumber the native speakers), I don’t think we can rightly claim that an English translation is first and foremost for native speakers. Should native ear qualms over a glass of tea, or larger issues of “awkwardness” or clunkiness, really matter?

 

Thoughts on DuoLingo

There are lots of free online language-learning tools, but the one I see used most often is DuoLingo, so that’s where I’m going to start in my survey of web-based language portals.

What Is DuoLingo?

DuoLingo is a free language-learning website and app. Today, I’m only focusing on the website, as that’s what I use myself.

As of now, you can use the site in 21 different languages and study up to 16. It looks like the native English version of the site has the most languages available out of any other, including niche offerings like Welsh or Esperanto. For everyone else, the choice is a little more limited and is usually English. I think it’s pretty safe to infer that many of DuoLingo’s users are using it to learn English.

Languages available for English speakers to study on DuoLingo
Languages available for English speakers to study on DuoLingo

DuoLingo is built on translating simple sentences. Exactly what is available seems to depend on the language, but the basics include:

  • translating a sentence from the target language into your native language, and vice versa
  • multiple choice questions
  • simple clozes (fill-in-the-blanks)
  • dictation

In some lessons there’s also a speaking portion, if you care to use your mic. (I don’t have it in Russian, but my partner has it in Italian.)

DuoLingo is free to use.

What Do I Like About DuoLingo?

It’s free! And for being free it’s a pretty great resource. It attempts to address all four areas of language acquisition (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) and every exercise has a discussion thread attached to it, allowing you to get feedback from experts and native speakers about why a particular answer is or isn’t correct. DuoLingo’s userbase is so large that any question you ask will probably be answered fairly quickly.

Russian grammar Q+A on prepositions and possessives.
Russian grammar Q+A on prepositions and possessives.

The focus of each lesson is also sufficiently narrow to keep from overwhelming the true beginner, while the level tests allow a false beginner to skip ahead to an appropriate level/lesson instead of going over the basics yet again. And it generally seems pretty forgiving on spelling (unless spelling is an essential part of the grammar).

DuoLingo also encourages daily practice. In whichever language you study, you set yourself a goal of how many points you want to earn a day. You can set it low if you want to keep things casual, or if you’re serious you can set it quite high. If you use Chrome (or Chromium) and allow DuoLingo to use your alerts, the site will nag you if you haven’t hit your daily goal yet. You also get rewarded for streaks.

DuoLingo gives you a weekly summary of your activity.
DuoLingo gives you a weekly summary of your activity.

Finally, the whole thing is built on daily practice and a spaced repetition model. The site shows you exactly which areas you need to review and which you don’t, according to models that I assume are based on your previous performance and how long it’s been since you reviewed a particular lesson.

How I'm doing in Russian. You can see that I need to review "prepositions and place," "family," "people 2," and "nature."
How I’m doing in Russian. You can see that I need to review “Prepositions and Place,” “Family,” “People 2,” and “Nature.”

What Don’t I Like About DuoLingo?

It focuses almost exclusively on simple sentences, or at most two or three. This is fine for learning new vocabulary or grammatical structures, but won’t help your long-form reading (or writing) skills. Also, some of the sentences are surreal to the point of uselessness. (“There are many problems from his houses.” is one that springs to mind from the Russian for English speakers series.)

I believe language acquisition works best when you’re able to use it talk about, well, you! Yourself and things you care about. With DuoLingo, you are an incredibly passive participant, with zero input into the direction of the lessons.

The quality of lessons also seem to be inconsistent across languages. There are lots of cool options available to my partner in the Italian tree that I don’t have in Russian, like using lingots to purchase bonus lessons on idioms or pick-up lines. Likewise, I can’t guarantee the quality of any other lesson, because it seems to depend at least partially on your native language.

Verdict

DuoLingo is really good for learning vocabulary and essential grammar concepts. But no matter what your level is, you should be supplementing it with other material: music, movies, or podcasts; short stories, essays, or news articles; conversation classes or Skype sessions; writing your own work. These last options require clear and useful feedback, something a good teacher can provide.

Want conversation practice or feedback on your writing? Email me from the sidebar or tweet @KobaEnglish and we can set something up.