The Friday Fillip: Speaking in Tongues

One of the things I dislike about getting older is how much harder it becomes to learn languages. Children absorb them like meat and drink, becoming them. And I, when young, was a quick study indeed if I had a foreign girlfriend. But now, though I still hanker after the feel of exotic words in my mouth, I mumble and forget them. I’ve thrown myself at some Punjabi and always peck away at Mandarin. Arabic seduces me, as I think I’ve said before, with the beauty of its script . . . . And oddly the only thing I can say in Russian beyond yes and no is the one thing that never would get properly said: “I have a cold in my nose.”

You need a community, though, to really learn a language, even if it’s only a community of two. And the more the merrier. Which is why I’m skeptical about software and online programs that claim to be able to teach you a language. Still, they’re more interesting, certainly, than the books that once made the same promise. And if we accept that written and spoken languages are two quite different things, then there’s perhaps some promise, particularly if they offer a kind of community through the interactivity of the internet.

So I thought we’d take a look at a couple of these (free) sites to see what’s on offer and whether there’s value.

The first is Duolingo. The site offers to teach you a few of the more popular European languages: Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese — with further languages likely to come. Duolingo promises to remain free of charge, and it tempts you (perhaps) by offering you the chance to participate in the translation of documents. This last point is a little unclear on the site: as I understand it Duolingo offers a free document translation service (between English and the first three languages mentioned above), with the translation done through crowd sourcing.

The tools for learning languages are fairly straightforward: graduated lessons, testing at all levels as a precondition of advancing, sound clips to teach you pronunciation, and (I think) an ability to record your own attempts at speaking. I’m unsure about this because although the site is attractive and effective, there’s a real lack of explanatory material.

The second site is rather more than just a language learning site. Memrise offers to help you learn any number of things, ranging from languages to the herbs of Britain. The nub of the project has to do with a technique that they claim can enable you to memorize prodigious amounts quickly and relatively easily. As they say on the About page:

We use ‘mems’ to help you form vivid, sensory memories. We test you continuously, always making sure to give your brain just the right workout. We remind you of what you’ve learned at scientifically optimized times so your memories are always growing stronger, and never forgotten.

As far as languages go, Memrise has courses on dozens and dozens of tongues from every continent, created, it seems, by volunteers. And as with Duolingo, there are graded lessons, pronunciation files, as well as aids to memory. Many of the language courses are ultra-basic: e.g. “25 words and phrases that will start you speaking French in no time.” But there’s a lot here that would appeal to a tourist headed to foreign destination for the first time, for example.

Simplistically, Memrise is broad and shallow, where Duolingo is narrower and deeper. But both invite you to try your hand — and mouth — at saying it otherwise, which might not be as easy or as correct as using the latest machine translation tools. But it’ll probably be more fun.

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