Monday, May 9, 2011

LiveMocha: Premier Avis

I've finished Level 1: Active French of Livemocha. This level is "For students who are newcomers to the language or for those who need to start from the basics."

I did the three free days of Livemocha and liked it enough that I decided to pay for it. You get a discount on a year's subscription if you pay for it during the trial period, but considering how quickly I was moving through the lessons--and considering that I don't know exactly what I'll be doing for most of the next year--I decided to go month-to-month, instead.

Overall, I like Livemocha. Several months ago I started using LingQ (the free version) to supplement Portuguese learning, and while it helped and was somewhat interesting to use, I found that it was both full of bugs and not quite what I was looking for. LingQ may be good for people who are looking for a very nonstructured course, but I don't think that's the way it presents itself, and it was simply difficult to move through. I spent way too much time just navigating back and forth in the site (and I am quite computer literate). Livemocha, on the other hand, seems to have many fewer bugs, and it's much more what I was looking for.

Benny of Fluent in 3 Months makes some great points here; I was surprised at how much I agreed with him. There's too much English--I recognize the need for some of it, especially for those with aural learning preferences. Hearing the voice say a vocabulary word in French and then English is the equivalent of a flashcard for the ears. But there are other long passages of directions or explanations that don't serve that function and waste time for me. Why isn't the "congratulations" page that turns up after every unit in my target language, at the very least? Benny also points out that the program "makes" you spend time on things you don't really need help with. I found that, too, but I didn't really expect the program to be sophisticated to that level. I don't need help with French food words, especially those that are totally obvious (the majority of the nouns I was introduced to in Level 1)--I know what baguette, cafe, and the mean, thanks.

Some of the exercises are pointless, especially the drag-and-drop vocabulary quizzes. Oh, well; I whiz through 'em.

Benny has other complaints, but he wrote his review a while ago, and it seems like Livemocha has made several improvements since then. For instance, it's definitely giving me the gender for each noun introduced, and gives both definitions and sentences of context. And I'm not sure, but I think the courses (or at least the French one) may be more differentiated for each language now. Mine does seem to be largely French-specific.

My favorite parts? I like the listening exercises. I'm more interested in understanding and speaking than anything else, so they're good for me. And while the dialogues are artificial, and I'm sure the people are speaking slowly--well, I like starting slow. I've even gotten quite curious about what's going to happen next for the two couples in the dialogues--the set who seem to be friends beginning a romance, and the two strangers who bumped into each other on the street and have spent the whole day together and are making plans for another date. Goodness, I will be disappointed if these storylines aren't continued in the next level.

The other part I think is great: the feedback. Benny mentioned that it took a long time for him to get feedback on his submissions. I don't know if it's because there are a lot more French-speakers on the site than German-speakers, but I get tons of feedback, instantly. Every submission gets at least a couple of answers within 30 minutes. Some of these are very helpful; others aren't helpful at all. (They say "nice job" or "try harder".) I'm a little tired of people telling me that I need to work on pronouncing my Rs correctly; I know that, thanks; but that's the disadvantage of having multiple people review your work. They aren't following my progress and they don't know what others have already told me. (I COULD develop my own contacts and get some consistency, though.) And I enjoy spending a little bit of time reviewing others' submissions in English, too. (On the other hand, I made one submission in LingQ, waited several days, and finally asked why it hadn't been reviewed. I was told that sometimes that happens and that I should resubmit to another tutor, which I did. Both times the tutors' profiles were active and they had good ratings. I finally got a notice from LingQ several months later--months, seriously--saying my post could not be reviewed.)

Benny's final opinion is that you can't learn a language using Livemocha, and I agree. These are, at heart, games and activities and nothing more. If I was using Livemocha as my only language-learning tool, I think I would be frustrated, because much of the material is gone over very quickly--the verbs, for instance. Or perhaps I would be not really learning anything without even noticing it, because I was passing lessons easily. But that isn't really meant as a criticism of Livemocha. I doubt there are many, if any, people who ARE using it as their only tool. So to say that it doesn't work for that is something of a straw-man. I would argue that Livemocha doesn't even really position itself that way, at least based on what I've seen--as opposed to Rosetta Stone, which definitely tries to give the impression in its advertising that it's all you need to learn a language and learn it well.

The pricepoint of Livemocha is low enough, and the benefits I'm getting from it are high enough, that I recommend it as one of a language learner's tools. I'll revisit this opinion as I progress through the levels.

Finally, I want to mention that although I'd heard of Livemocha before, it was Aaron G. Myers's Everyday Language Learner Ten Week Journey program that really got me to sign up. I definitely recommend that--get Aaron's advice while it's free. Not that he's said he's going to start charging for the Ten Week Language Journey, but he does talk about a future positioning himself as a language-learning coach, and his advice is good.

Third Lesson / La Troisième Leçon

Aha! "Troisième" is a word I know, because when I spent Christmas in Paris... goodness, five years ago... I rented a tiny apartment in the third arrondissement for two weeks. The third isn't a particularly interesting place, which I suppose is why it was so cheap Paris-wise, but it was easy walking distance from the first and several other good places. I got to pass the Pompidou anytime I came or went. What could be better? And the apartment was in a building with regular Parisians. Unfortunately, the top of the building burned down while I was there and those regular Parisians were displaced. Les pompiers de Paris, you are splendid.

I had my third lesson--it had been more than two weeks. If you've read the preceding posts, you know I've been kind of glum about what little progress I felt like I was making. But the third lesson went very well indeed; we had limited conversation about the origins of Cinco de Mayo, political news, and my cake-baking methods. There was little structured about the lesson, and my teacher apologized for that and said there would be more structure in the future; I protested that I liked this better. He laughed and agreed that being able to converse was the whole point, but nevertheless, there would be more structure. I know from experience that I do need to be pushed, so that will probably be good for me.

Stay with me for a moment here while I make a comparison. I went through a stage where I didn't like to take medicine. (Most people do. These days I get impatient with people who talk smugly, proudly, or special-snowflakely about how they "never take medicine". Why suffer? Having a headache and not being able to rest or work instead of popping some acetaminophen doesn't make you a better person.) Then I went through a stage where I would take medicine so I wouldn't come off as smug or like I wasn't willing to take the help offered me, but I didn't really believe in it. If I had a bad headache or cramps I would take some painkiller, and then when the pain went away about an hour later I would think to myself "Why did I even bother to take that medicine? If I had only been patient enough to wait an hour, it would have gone away!" It probably sounds silly when someone else says it, but I think that's a common thing to think. I hear it in my patients all the time. "I can't be that sick, I guess, because the pain went away not long after I took whatever medicine that was you gave me!" Yeah, morphine will do that.

So. In the two weeks that I went without having a lesson, I was keeping busy with French. I was reading books, watching dubbed-into-French television, listening to Radio France, and working through LiveMocha. And thinking to myself the whole time... as you can see by my posts... that I was just going through the motions, and nothing I was doing was really going to help me learn French. Then I finally had a lesson, and everything went so well--I was speaking and understanding much, much more French than I had at the previous lesson. And I thought to myself "why did I waste my time reading/watching/listening/working when I was going to do so well at my lesson anyway?".

Right. Clearly I did not waste my time. Having a bunch of different tools at my disposal is definitely important! If I couldn't take lessons for a while... or if I lost my internet connection for a while... or if the county went on strike and the library closed for a while... I would still have resources to continue my French learning.

Aujourd'hui est une journée ensoleillée pour apprendre le français.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Study Abroad / étudier à l'étranger

"Etudier a l'etranger" is how Google Translate tells me to say "study abroad", but how do the French and Francophones really say it?

As I've mentioned, I learned very little Spanish in three years of high school Spanish class. That isn't meant to be an indictment of traditional language methods. It's an indictment of the poor quality of my high school Spanish classes. They expected little and got less. Most of our grade--I swear, this is not hyperbole--was based on our "cultural projects", outside work that was awarded points on some mysterious basis. Eating at a Mexican restaurant earned you quite a few points. So did making a pinata. You could get points for cooking Mexican foods--not as many as the effort required, in my opinion--but you only got full points if you made a big posterboard with pictures of the food you made, and confetti and whatnot. Friendship bracelets. Confetti eggs. You get the idea. A few of the possible activities (we were given a list) did require actual Spanish knowledge or learning, but these, mysteriously, were awarded a very small number of points. I only did them when I needed a few more points to round out my grade. Writing a letter in Spanish (you had to bring it to the teacher with a stamped envelope so the teacher could mail it; the writing alone didn't get you any points, so you had to have someone to write to) earned far less points than eating a chimichanga at La Fiesta. (You had to bring in a receipt signed by the waiter, by the way. Every year angry parents wanted to know why a note from the parent stating that they'd eaten at the restaurant wasn't good enough; they'd eaten at three that semester and now their kid wasn't going to get any points? The Spanish teachers were a suspicious lot.)

Isn't that CRAZY? I could go on for this long enough to make it its own post. You had to do that big poster thing for making Mexican food at home, but you still wouldn't get as many points as you would for having a waiter sign a receipt.

Anyway, my point is: I didn't learn much Spanish. I DID learn to conjugate 24 irregular verbs in the present and maybe preterit tense. I had these memorized for a long time. They gave us a long, long sheet of paper and we had to write them all in. Every semester we had a test in this, and it made up the rest of our grade that didn't consist of cultural projects--again, no hyperbole. (The first semester the test was just which verbs they were and the first person present; we had to do more each semester.) I was very, very sad when I started learning Spanish for real and found out there are more than 24 irregular verbs in Spanish. My Guatemalan teacher was not impressed in the slightest by my ability to list 24 infinitives with irregular conjugations.

So, I flunked the Spanish placement exam in college and elected not to take any Spanish there; I wasn't particularly interested in it anyway. I wanted to learn ancient Greek and Latin, with a vague idea that then I would be able to learn almost any language with some ease.

I basically failed ancient Greek, for various reasons, most involving me being lazy. I loved parts of Greek, but it was not a Greek Appreciation class. THAT I would have aced. I did not admit to laziness, and my professor suggested I start over again but begin with Latin this time, because no one ever started with Greek. They'd all taken Latin in high school, or at least started it in college first. I lasted half a term in Latin. I proclaimed that I didn't think I would ever learn a language unless I was somewhere where I had to speak it all the time. I decided to fulfill my college's strict language requirement by learning more-or-less organically and then "testing out". I went to Italy.

I learned Italian, in Italy; I learned it pretty well, considering how little time I put into it. I was with an American program made up of students from various colleges. It was more rigorous than such programs often are. The program was for art history, primarily, but we spent the first month in intensive Italian classes. We lived with Italian "host families", but central Florence being what it is, almost all of us lived with older ladies or couples who provided us with a room and two meals a day and dinner conversation, but little else. And each of us had an American roommate. My roommate and I hit it off instantly, and we didn't even try to make promises about speaking only Italian to each other. (This promise, and the quick abandoning of it, is a common trope of study abroad novels and narratives.) We went to Italian class together, and of course we did things around town that required us to speak Italian, and we spoke Italian with our "host signora". We learned. Somehow I got to the point where I felt like I could say whatever I wanted in Italian. It really was almost like magic, at least in retrospect. A year later, when I traveled in the south of Italy, several people asked me where in northern Italy I was from after hearing me talk (this is more a reflection on how different southern Italian is from northern Italian than my own fluency). (Or, as I am trying diplomatically NOT to put it, but as my full-of-pride teachers would have said: it just means they speak bad Italian in the south.) Not all of my classmates got there, and at least for many of them, I think it was largely that fear of making mistakes. One of my friends asked me in astonishment once, after I told a story about speaking to a nice elderly man I met in the park, "You feel comfortable enough with your Italian to talk to people?" Another time I went with two classmates to one of those stores that specializes in selling imported American processed foods. I asked for a bagel in Italian, grammatically perfect but strongly accented. The jerk guy who was along said "Listen to you! 'Vor-ay'?" and sneered. Then he asked for his pretzels in English. (There were only six men in our group of thirty students, and though this guy was a jerk, he was good-looking, and--well, it's lucky that I already thought he was a jerk, because as it was, that was almost enough to make me stop speaking Italian for good. What if my accent really was as bad as he said and he was just the only one pointing it out?)

But anyway, yes, I learned Italian. I easily passed a test for people who had taken two years of college Italian. I've forgotten it fairly thoroughly. I have little occasion to use it, and it's not really worth the effort to keep it up.

So when I decided to learn Spanish for real, it was a no-brainer: I was going to go somewhere Spanish-speaking and learn Spanish by magic just as I'd learned Italian. I chose Guatemala, mecca of Spanish learners. I loved Guatemala. LOVED. I lived with a "real" host family, parents and children (though still just interaction at meals, which was okay with me). I had one-on-one teaching and daily "excursions"--and because I went to the right kind of school, these were all in Spanish, too. Independently I started taking lessons in backstrap weaving, and these were in Spanish. If I had gone by myself instead of with another American, I would have been speaking Spanish 24/7. I learned Spanish. It took more work than magic, but my Spanish was better grammatically than my Italian ever was. My teachers pushed me. I said things in multiple tenses without having to think about it much, after a while. (I relied heavily on the present tense in Italian.)

The person I was with was of a more studious nature than I was, and spent more time on homework and flashcards than I would have on my own; I started doing it too, because I didn't want to be left behind. (Or bored. We had a limited number of English books along, and there wasn't much else to do after dinner.) Also, the tourist who speaks the language the best generally does all the talking and comprehending during travels, so I would have been left WAY behind if I'd been even a little behind. That was my first real experience with flashcards for foreign language, and I found them pretty useful, though I wasn't nearly as systematic about it as my companion.

I discovered the world of free and creative language-learning resources, and language-learning blogs, just last year when I dabbled in learning Portuguese after beginning a brief, sweet romance in Brazil.

Then I decided to learn French. I wanted to learn French "for real", the way I'd learned Italian and Spanish "for real". And to me, this meant going somewhere where people speak French and learning it the same way I learned Italian and Spanish.

So... even though I have all of these great free and inexpensive resources available, and examples of people who learn languages without ever going to the country... I keep finding myself trying to insist that I won't be able to learn French without immersion--actual, physical immersion.

Is it true? I don't know. It doesn't have to be true, it's not like it would be impossible mentally, but the question is whether I will actually be able to make myself do it without going somewhere.

I don't have the luxury I used to have of long stretches of time where I could go to another country. Would two weeks be worth it?

I can't afford France.

I've been spoiled by Guatemala. Language lessons are not as cheap anywhere as they are in Guatemala. And it's hard to imagine going back to a classroom-of-foreigners environment after all that delicious individual tutoring.

Because I still have a great feeling of wistfulness for Latin America, and because I can't afford France, I looked into going to French Guiana. Some of you already know the punchline THERE. (Apparently everything in French Guiana is imported, and it's one of the more expensive places to live in the world. It isn't some French-speaking developing nation, the equivalent of Bolivia:Spain.)

And there's Africa. Africa is expensive to get to. It's the version of French I want to learn, so it makes sense to learn there. I just... do I need to do this? Should I? Is it the best use of my money? I started looking at a school in Senegal. It's much more expensive than my school in Guatemala was. Worth it? Necessary? I just don't know.

Insisting on a foreign-immersion environment is just as stick-in-the-mud "right way to learn a language" as any other "must".

But it's still a question I'll probably revisit often.

Nécessaire? Important? Aucune de ces?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Wanting and Doing / Vouloir et Faire

Today I dropped by my French teacher's store to tell him I had to reschedule our lesson, which was meant to be tomorrow. He spoke to me in French. I didn't understand. At least, not well enough.

I was frustrated, and I think he was disappointed. I think given a few moments, I COULD have understood him; I got the gist of some of what he was saying, but then, I knew what I expected him to say. But there's a big difference between understanding the general gist and making actual plans that we both need to be on the same page with.

I'm expecting too much, maybe. I've only actually had two lessons, and the last one was almost two weeks ago; my teacher had to cancel two lessons, and I've been working a lot. I've been working on French at home some, of course. But there's another place where there's a big difference: the pleasure I feel at recognizing some words and even understanding some of a Radio France broadcast, and having a coherent conversation with someone.

I read several language blogs, and none of them seem to talk about this stage much. Maybe because it doesn't make good copy. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, sure. But there is a time when speech is paralyzed because there just isn't enough to say yet. It may be longer for some people than others, and it may be brief when we already speak a related language (though I still haven't decided if that's a help or a hindrance for me). But I think it's always there. It's difficult to read the blogs of people for whom it might as well not exist; yet this is, I think an important time to blog about. I'm sure most language-learning endeavors end here.

I miss the immersion environments where I learned Italian and Spanish and some of what little Portuguese I know. Where just going to the drugstore is an exercise in language-learning. Two weeks in Brazil, a small amount of study and correspondence at home, and a few more days in Brazil several months later, and I was able to ask questions in Portuguese in a Brazilian drugstore and get the things I needed.

Yet I can't even understand my French teacher when he tells me we can meet on Thursday at 1700.

I WANT to speak French with at least some fluidity. I am not speaking French with any fluidity at all. It's very difficult when what we want doesn't match what we do.

It's difficult to start over with each language, to remember that with each one--I remember specific times in Italy and Brazil, anyway--there's a time when I want to cry with frustration at not being able to understand or be understood.

Well, I've been trying to keep busy during these two weeks off from lessons, in the following ways: LiveMocha, children's books, youtube videos, Radio France. These things will all get their own posts, eventually.

Publié sous un nuage gris.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Un Exercice Différent

Second lesson went much better than the first--I think Roosevelt was more organized. Also, this lesson was one hour, and the first one was two hours (which I hadn't realized going in). Two hours felt way too long, and one hour felt too short; so I don't know what to schedule in the future.

Roosevelt had me do an exercise that I thought seemed dumb, at first. It isn't anything I've ever done in other language study; I don't know whether it's a common teaching technique or not. He played recorded sentence and had me write down what I thought I heard, and then compare after I'd done ten.

I didn't think this would be useful because French spelling is definitely something I don't have a handle on, not to mention French words in general. If I hardly know any words, how will I know what to write down? Meaningless phonemes?

But as it turns out, this is actually going to be really good for my comprehension. One of my silent complaints is that I can't understand at all what he's saying in French; it just comes through like a string of sounds. This forced me to turn the sounds I was hearing into "pictures" of written French words. (I spent a summer working for Lindamood-Bell, a fancy tutoring agency for people--mostly children and teenagers--who are struggling to read, write, or comprehend. We spent a lot of time turning words into pictures--either pictures of objects and concepts, if comprehension was the problem, or letters and letter-combinations, if reading and writing were the problem. I was a good tutor because I followed the program, but I never really understood my students' issues, because all of that had always come easily and naturally to me. I get it now and may try using some Lindamood-Bell techniques on myself.)

I did better than I expected and got more than half the words exactly right. Often, I turned one long word into a string of sounds instead of a whole word; "enterprise" became "ent aire prixe". I especially noticed that I can't tell the difference between most plural words and their singular counterparts. I'm not sure if there's a difference in pronunciation or not; they sound the same to me.

Très encourageants, tout à fait! Je sens que je fais des avancement.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Très étrange

I was startled to discover that French has no single word for seventy (or eighty or ninety). WHY? Seriously, why? It seems really strange, and I'm also surprised that I've gotten through this many years of life without having picked up on that fact. Counting is usually an early lesson (as it was here), but I guess both my childhood French enrichment class and my middle school French class only taught me the numbers as far as... well, I think eleven. (I knew fourteen and fifteen for French-king / art history reasons, though not, oddly, sixteen.)

The part of my mind that eagerly seizes on anything easy to do or think about wants to go off on tangents, like hypotheses about how having no word for seventy/eighty/ninety might affect concepts of numbers in people who speak French as a first language...

I haven't been so surprised since I discovered (sitting in a lanchonette in Sao Paulo, reading the daily specials for the week) that Portuguese has no words for Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday. (They number those days--Monday is "second day" or "segunda-feira", and so on.) Why, when French and Spanish and Italian all have basically the same words for those days? Wouldn't you think the words would have migrated from Spain to Portugal, or vice versa?

How strange Portuguese-speakers must find it when they learn that English has words for those days that have no relationship to number placement.

(I remember being very, very young and deciding that "Tuesday" must be called that because it is the second day, twos-day; but logically, then, Thursday ought to come next, thirds-day, though Friday made a certain kind of sense, five-day.)

I wonder what other surprises French will have for me. During one summer in Italy I had an friend who was bilingual in English and French (American ex-pat family), with Spanish as a third language. He was irritated, and at first disbelieving, about the words "pomodoro", "cibo", and "birra" in Italian, which, he said, did not make any sense.

Je sais comment il se sentait.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ma Première Leçon

My first lesson was an exercise in frustration. I have to remind myself that in some ways it is ALWAYS this way.

When I started taking Italian, I was with a group of other American college students. All of us who didn't speak any Italian at all were put into an evaluation lesson, though they didn't tell us that was what it was at the time. We spent a couple of hours starting to learn Italian, and then the next day were separated into smaller groups. I was interested and excited to begin, but the teacher thought I was an idiot because when she told us that people usually used "babbo" for "dad" instead of "papa", she asked if anyone knew what "papa" meant. Well, I knew some Spanish. "Potato?" I asked.

My Italian teacher did not know Spanish. She looked at me witheringly and with astonishment that I could be so stupid. "Pope," she said. My classmates, who apparently also did not know Spanish, burst out laughing.

I was put into the "slow learners" class. My roommate, who was practically a linguistic genius and already spoke fluent German, didn't say a word during the intro class (preferring to wait until she knew something to speak, perhaps to avoid withering looks), was also put into the slow learners class. We quickly became the stars of our class, which didn't seem odd to us, but when we were informed by a classmate who had been placed into the "fast learners" class that ours was for "slow" people, we were furious. No one was going to call US slow learners, plus we didn't want to be held back in Italian. We went to our teacher and asked if it was true. "Nina, Wendy," he said calmly, very suave and Milanese, "are you happy with your test score?" We had both just scored 100% on the second weekly test. "Yes," we said, "but-" "The other class took the same test, and no one scored better than either of you."

Well, we loved our Italian teacher anyway, so we shut up after that. After a month when our Italian lessons changed to three days a week and half a day--the rest of the time we spent in art history classes--Nina fought to be moved into the intermediate class with the people who came to Florence already knowing some Italian, and did well there. I wasn't so ambitious (or so talented) and stayed contentedly in the beginner's class, where, to the scorn of the classmate who told us we were slow, all the beginners were mixed together again.

When I went to my first Spanish class in Guatemala (one-on-one, five hours daily), I felt like I would be all right; I'd studied Spanish for three years in high school, and even though the placement test I took in college still had me at the very basic level, that had to be good for something, right? What I found was what most people find when they begin a third language: whenever I tried to speak in Spanish, it came out in Italian. I hadn't even been to Italy for six years, but the words seemed lodged in my brain. I liked my teacher, but I was frustrated at her refusal to speak any English. I'd always heard about that as a language-teaching method, but never experienced it, and it seemed as silly as I'd always thought. "Why talk when you know I can't understand?" I wondered.

We switched Spanish teachers every week, and frustrations were ongoing; they wouldn't let me look at my notes, they spent time on things I didn't care about, they made me write paragraphs when I didn't care anything about being able to write in Spanish. But I had to admit that I was learning Spanish. I got used to their method.

Which brings me to French class yesterday. I can tell that Roosevelt, although he is well-educated and has several other French students, is not as accustomed to teaching a foreign language as the other teachers I've had. In all situations, including my public school experiences, we started out with certain things. Interrogatives. Basic classroom needs ("repeat, please"). Phonics. Roosevelt was a bit scattered, starting an irregular verb, then moving over to vocabulary, then members of the family, and so on. He taught me the forms to answer some questions (Do you have ____? Yes, I have ____.) and seemed surprised when I didn't have the vocabulary to answer the question, even when I had the format down. And I had to ask him how to say "I don't know what you're saying" and "Repeat, please" and "How do you say ___?". (Which was a little slapsticky. "How do I say 'I don't understand'?" I asked. "You don't understand?" he asked, and then he repeated the sentence he'd just said in French. "No, I want to know how to tell you I don't understand." He repeated the sentence again...)

I think things will get a lot better when I know more, but I'm going to go ahead and do some independent study on these phrases that I know I need. (I always say "I don't understand" a LOT.) For the first time I get why so many bloggers are anti-formal instruction. But I do think these lessons are the right choice for me. I can already read a certain amount of French, and primarily using computer resources would probably--because of my natural dislike for anything difficult--just let me keep reading French, and maybe understanding better, but not really speaking.

Je vais persévérer! (Tiens, j'ai appris "je vais" à ma première leçon.)