Monday, September 29, 2014

Duolingo: Language Learning as a Game

What is Duolingo? (Updated December 30, 2014)

Duolingo is an award-winning free, web-based program for learning foreign languages. Duolingo manages to make language learning fun by turning it into a video game, but, more important, it also manages to be very effective. It presently offers English speakers a choice of five languages (plus four in beta and seven under development), and has lots of options for non-English speakers as well.

I have been using Duolingo since January 2014 (351 days as of December 30, 2014). I have completed the Spanish and Italian courses, I expect to finish the French one in April 2015, and I have just started the German one. I'm very impressed with Duolingo, and I strongly encourage anyone who wants to learn a language to give it a try. For a free service, the quality is astonishing.

And it's not just me. In a December 2014 article, PC Magazine said, "Duolingo is the best free online language-learning service." So it's worth taking a look at it.

In this posting, I'll describe the basics of how to use Duolingo, I'll talk a bit about how it works, and I'll finish up with suggestions on how to get the most out of it. I won't talk about the mobile version (even though I know it's very popular) simply because I haven't tried it myself. Nor will I talk about the "Immersion" feature, in which advanced students collaborate to translate documents.

How Do You Use Duolingo?

Skill Tree

Like any system for learning a language, Duolingo has a set of "skills" that you need to learn, divided between vocabulary (e.g. "Household," "Places," "Directions," etc.) and grammar (e.g. "Irregular Plurals," "Verbs: Past Imperfect," "Determiners," etc.) Unlike a textbook, which might have twenty chapters, Duolingo has a "tree" comprising 60 to 70 skills. Here's the top portion of my new German tree:

The gold skill, "Basics 1" is the only one I've completed so far (after three days). The two colorful ones under it represent skills that I'm allowed to attempt now. The gray ones below are skills I'm not allowed to try yet. When you complete the tree, you have "beaten the game." Note the similarity to a computer game where you complete quests that set you up to do more quests until you reach the final goal.

The upper right corner shows "experience points" (XP) which are earned by answering questions correctly. You earn XP by completing lessons, which advances you in the language (and opens more of the tree). XP lets you compare your progress with friends and family.

In the upper left corner, you can see that I'm currently at level 2 in German. Level is a function of the number of experience points (roughly the cube root, so each level requires more and more points). Again, note the similarity to a video game.

When you have finished all the skills, you have learned the language. If you did nothing but Duolingo, you would probably reach a CEFR level of A2. That's enough to "get by" if you travel somewhere. It's not enough to do much reading or hold serious conversations, but it'll sure impress your friends.

If you supplement Duolingo with other resources (as I'll describe later) you should easily reach B1 and possibly B2, at which point you can read newspapers and attempt novels. But even A2 is nothing to sneeze at. It sure is a lot more than you get out of most video games! It's quite a lot to get from a free one.

Lessons: Inside a skill

If you look closely at the tree above, you'll see that the "Basics 2" skill looks like a pie chart. That skill comprises five "lessons," and so far I have done two of them. If I click on Basics 2, I can see the whole list.

Each lesson is described in terms of which words it teaches. Lessons must be done in a particular order. If I click on "Lesson 3," it begins the quiz for that lesson.

Some lessons (especially the earlier ones) include grammar tips. It is almost always best to read these after attempting the lessons. Otherwise your eyes will glaze over--much as they might have in your high-school language classes. The best time to read a grammar rule is at the point where you're wondering "why do I have to say it like that?" Anyway, the tips are generally good--just don't think you have to read and understand them before doing a lesson.

Quizzes: How you complete lessons

Quizzes currently have seventeen questions, of which there are seven types:
  1. Foreign to English Translation. These show you a sentence in the language you are trying to learn and ask you to translate it into English.
  2. English to Foreign Translation. You see a sentence in English and must translate it into the foreign language.
  3. Listening. You hear a sentence in the foreign language and must type what you hear. (Not a translation.)
  4. Multiple choice. You are given a sentence in English and shown three sentences in the foreign language. You must pick the ones that correctly translate the English sentence. This works best if you try to do the translation before you look at the multiple choices.
  5. Match the picture. You are shown a word in English and three pictures, each labeled with a foreign word. You pick the picture that matches the word. Most (not all) new vocabulary is introduced this way.
  6. Translate one word. Sometimes it gives you a single word in English and asks you to type it in the target language.
  7. Speak into the microphone. This one is supposed to test your pronunciation by having you read something, but I was unable to make it work at all. Reports from those who've tried it suggest that at this writing the feature doesn't work all that well at the best of times, so I didn't try too hard to fix the microphone problems. Disabling the mic in the settings menu makes these questions go away, and I think that's what most people do.
Most of the question types give you lots of opportunities to hear the foreign language spoken. You can repeat what you hear, but other than the speak-into-the-microphone question type, there's no feedback from the program.

Obviously the translation exercises have the problem that there are often hundreds or thousands of ways to translate a given sentence. The Spanish ¿Es su libro? Could mean "Is it your book" or "Is it his book" or "Is it her book" for example. Duolingo generally has all the reasonable translations, and it benefits from a mechanism for users to report missing ones, so it gets better over time.

In the year I've been on Duolingo, I have seen them adopt at least 100 of my suggestions, so they do listen to their users.


Here's an example of a German-to-English translation question with a correct answer.

The red bar across the top shows how much of the lesson I've done. The word in gold, sind, is new vocabulary in this lesson. the number 2 on the right is the total number of questions I've answered so far--right or wrong. Whenever I get an answer wrong, the bar moves one to the left. That means each wrong answer cancels out one correct answer. You never "die" (like in many video games), but it can take a long time to win. The only way to lose is to click that Quit button in the upper right.

Other types of questions have slightly different formats, but the basic idea is the same: answer questions to complete lessons. Complete lessons to master skills. Master all the skills to learn the language. That's the whole thing in a nutshell.


If you look back at the skill tree, you'll see a long blue button on the right titled "Strengthen Skills." This creates a custom quiz based on the words or phrases you either seem to be having trouble with or which just haven't come up in a while. Doing review lessons doesn't advance you down the tree, but it does keep it from "weakening." If you don't do any review lessons, after a while the earlier skills will turn from gold back into some other color. They'll even have strength bars (like a wi-fi signal) that will gradually drop. It's Duolingo's way of saying that it thinks you haven't really learned this material. Weakened skills don't affect you finishing the tree, but most people want to keep their tree all gold. That's a good thing. I have written at length about the best strategy to keep a Duolingo tree gold.

The optimal mix seems to be to do two review lessons for every new lesson you attempt. You don't need to do a new lesson every day, but it's a good idea to do at least two review lessons each day. Three lessons a day takes about 30 minutes. (Longer if you do outside study.) If you can't commit 30 minutes a day to it, you probably shouldn't be trying to learn a new language in the first place.

If you really can do one new lesson every day, it takes about one year to finish a language. Since you'll have days when you don't want to do a new lesson, figure anywhere from 18 months to two years.

How does it work?

We don't need no grammar lessons

Despite the extensive grammar tips for the lesson above, Duolingo expects you to learn the language by trial and error--not by learning rules.

In a Redit Discussion in 2014, Luis Ahn, the founder of Duolingo said, "I, personally, don't like vocabulary, grammar or verb conjugation. My dream in life is to be able to teach you a language without you needing to read textbooks about indirect objects. In fact, I consider the use of grammar to be discriminatory against those who unfortunately didn't have a very good education in their own native language (which is the majority of the world's population). I think slapping 30 pages of grammar before every lesson is the easy way out -- instead we should strive for something that everybody can consume."

The person who approaches Duolingo purely as a video game will miss questions over and over until he/she has memorized the words and phrases needed to finish each lesson. Keeping the tree gold requires remembering all those words and phrases. The whole concept is that the brain will deduce the patterns so it can reduce the memorization effort and that after a while, correct expressions will start to "just feel right." To some degree, this really does happen.

The makers of Rosetta Stone have a similar philosophy: they too believe that through repeated exposure to sentences in the foreign language, your brain will naturally deduce the grammar rules, and you'll speak the language without ever having studied the grammar at all. After all, children learn their native languages without studying grammar at all.

Or do we?

Things aren't really this simple. Linguists don't believe that adults can learn languages the way children do, so one would expect a few problems. And there are.

Almost no one ever actually finishes Rosetta Stone. A University of Maryland Study showed that out of 150 people who had free access to it, all but one gave up during a twenty-week period. One wonders how they stay in business. My personal suspicion is that most people who paid $500 for the product a) blame themselves for not working hard enough and b) convince themselves that they're not really quitting--they're just putting it aside until "later."

Duolingo doesn't publish statistics, but it's clear from the discussion forums that only a fraction of those who start it ever finish their trees. City University of New York did a study that asked 88 people to use Duolingo for 30 hours over an eight-week period, or about half an hour per day.  One quarter of the people managed to do this. That sounds better than the Rosetta Stone numbers, but we don't know what the 20-week results would be like--never mind the 65-weeks it would take to finish the tree.

So it's not actually clear that Duolingo has a better success rate than Rosetta Stone, but it does have one very big advantage (other than being free): it has a strong online community.

Discussion as Study Group

If you look back at the last picture (of the failed French translation question), down at the bottom there's a button labeled "discuss sentence." If you click on that, it takes you to a forum where the users discuss the challenges of this specific sentence. These discussions are almost entirely about grammar.

Studying a language with Duolingo is like taking a college class from a professor who never bothers to show up to class, but somehow the TAs are regularly giving quizzes anyway, and they're harsh graders who can't be argued with. The discussion sessions are a study group where you and other students get together to try to teach yourselves the subject. Different people attempt to explain the rules, offering links to free outside material. Native speakers pop in to offer advice. And somehow it works. For those who stick with it, anyway.

Duolingo does listen. A year ago almost none of the lessons had any grammar tips whatsoever. In response to endless user complaints, they have gradually been adding more and more tips in more and more languages--and from what I can tell, those are largely based on the sort of questions users ask in the forums.

Supplemental Materials

I said above that if you do nothing but Duolingo, you'll reach A2 competence in the language in a bit over a year. But what if you want more?

Grammar Books

As with a video game, Duolingo has the equivalent of walk-throughs and game guides. These correspond to free online grammar sites and professionally-produced thousand-page grammar texts, respectively. For example, the French Grammar site is extremely popular with Duolingo users. For the first few skill levels, that may be all you want, but as you move through the language you're likely to want something more solid eventually.

For French, I bought Schaum's Outline of French Grammar: Sixth Edition, and it's quite good. Serious students will want a "Reference Grammar," which is more like an encyclopedia of the language and dives deep into difficult areas. I use Advanced French Grammar (L'Huillier, 1999), but most language students probably won't want anything that heavy-duty.

Either way, whenever you see something you don't understand, you thumb through the grammar book until you've figured it out. This is something you'd probably spend thirty minutes on once or twice a week.


For French, Spanish, and Italian, nothing beats WordReference. This free online dictionary gives you definitions, pronunciations, conjugations for words and phrases, and it automatically searches forums that have ten years worth of answers to questions about the meanings of words.

Flash Cards

Duolingo does a great job of drilling you on grammar (even though it purports not to teach grammar), but it's a little weak on vocabulary drill. If you supplement it with a few minutes a day of flashcard drill, it will make a big difference.

Duolingo has a very simple built-in flashcard program, but it drills word forms (e.g. mangeais "I was eating") as opposed to headwords (e.g. manger "to eat") and it only drills from the language you're learning to English--not the other way around. There are no "glosses"(hints that let you distinguish otherwise-equivalent words) so, for example, when it prompts with tiens you don't know if it means "I keep" or "hey there". Finally, it doesn't drill phrases, which doesn't help if you want to learn that it's commencer à not de. Duolingo's flashcard program is very new (as of this writing), so it will probably get better over time.

Instead, I use the Anki flashcard program, which is a free download. I create the cards myself based on what I get wrong or need to look up on Duolingo each day. Then I do a daily drill of up to 100 words per language (bidirectionally, so, for example, when I drill French, I see a mix of English-French and French-English cards), which takes from ten to fifteen minutes. I have a posting about using Anki flashcards for vocabulary drill.

The Duolingo Wiki

Finally, serious, long-time Duolingo users have created a Wiki for Duolingo which gives countless tips on how to make the best use of the software. Again, any serious videogame has a fan-maintained Wiki that gives you all the details; if you use Duolingo, you should bookmark the Wiki.

Speaking and Writing

Duolingo doesn't do a lot to directly develop your skills at conversation or composition, but it definitely puts you in a good position to do this yourself. I use the Lang-8 site to practice writing, and I have used Meetup to find local conversation groups for Spanish, Italian, and French. These are things that make more sense to try when you are almost finished with your Duolingo tree.


I have written at length about the importance of reading novels to help learn foreign languages. I still think this is the best way to advance, once you have reached an intermediate level. When you have learned the past tense in a language, I think it's time to start trying to read newspapers. Most of the worlds major foreign-language newspapers make at least some articles available for free. For French, I was delighted to learn that Le Monde has lots of free online content. Try to read just a paragraph or two a day to exercise what you learned from Duolingo. Use Wordreference for anything you couldn't figure out.

Once you get to the point where you can read entire newspaper articles, try books. I have some suggestions for how to pick a foreign novel to read. If you do this, you'll be pleasantly surprised to discover that Duolingo has done a good job of selecting vocabulary; especially if you like action-adventure and/or crime novels.

Alternatively, use Duolingo's own "Immersion" feature, which lets you practice translation in a collaborative environment with other learners. (Think of it as the co-op version of the game.)

Whichever route you take, read. As soon as you are able to do it, read. Unlike speaking or writing, you can do it every single day, and it has the potential to lift your abilities in all the other skills simply because it boosts your vocabulary so much.


Duolingo is a remarkably effective free service for learning a foreign language. By making it into a game, the Duolingo people have managed to make learning fun. This may be the most effective way ever designed to learn a foreign language, short of studying abroad.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Spanish "Resumptive Lo"

What is "Resumptive Lo?"

In Spanish we often see sentences with a mysterious lo in them. For example consider this dialogue:

¿Estás listo? (Are you ready?)
Lo estoy. (I am.)

It's fair to ask "what's the lo doing there?" It seems to mean "I am it." This lo is what linguists call an expletive, and it cannot be deleted.


Sometimes the syntax of a language forces you to put a word into a sentence even when the semantics don't require it. When that happens, you use an expletive, which is just a dummy word that doesn't mean anything.

In English, you find expletives in expressions like "It is raining," "There is trouble," and "Do you see?" The "It," "there," and "do" are there because English syntax requires something in those slots. The expletive disappears whenever there is a valid word for that slot. "Have you seen?" is valid but *"Have you done seen" is substandard.

One of the challenges of learning Spanish is learning to leave the English expletives out. "It is raining" just becomes Llueve. "There is trouble" becomes Hay problemas, etc. It shouldn't be a big surprise, then, that another challenge is learning to put the Spanish expletives in.

Three places that need lo

For words like ser, estar, and parecer, Spanish doesn't allow you to leave out the complement. That is, you can't just say "I am" or "he is"; you have to say what you are or what he is. Even though lo doesn't mean anything, it satisfies the syntax. If you just say *Estoy, then you've made an error on a par with saying "Is raining."

Transitive verbs have the same problem. You cannot omit the direct object.

¿Quién tiene una carta? (Who has a letter?)
Lo tengo. (I have).

This doesn't mean "I have it," obviously, since carta is feminine, and "I have it" wouldn't make sense in this context anyway. ("I have one" would also translate this correctly.) Again, *Tengo all by itself is wrong.

Finally, when haber means "there is" you have to say what there is.

¿Hay algo que comer? (Is there anything to eat?)
Lo hay. (There is.)

Likewise, *Hay, by itself is an error.

When do you use it?

That answers why you have to use it, but it doesn't explain when you would want to. You use the resumptive lo when the missing element simply repeats something earlier in the sentence or even in a previous sentence. In all my examples above, the lo represents something the first speaker said and which the second speaker doesn't need to repeat because "it's obvious." Nothing stops you from repeating what was said, of course, but almost no one does that--in any language.

This use of lo to "reuse" something from earlier is why this is called "resumptive lo."

You can use resumptive lo inside a single sentence. This example is from Duolingo:

Este plato es bonito, pero ese no lo es. (This plate is pretty, but that one is not.)

It's very tempting to say ese no es, because that's what we do in English, but it's wrong. A form of ser has to have a complement--even if it's just lo.

For more details, read "A New Reference Grammar of Modern Spanish: Fifth Edition" (Butt and Benjamin, 2011, section 7.4 "Lo as a neuter pronoun").

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Italian Perfect Tenses

What are Perfect Tenses?

A perfect tense is a compound tense which combines an auxiliary verb with a past participle. For every simple tense, there is a corresponding perfect tense. Here are a few examples from English:

Present: I eat
Past: I ate
Present Perfect: I have eaten
Past Perfect: I had eaten

In English, the auxiliary verb is always "to have". In these examples, the participle is "eaten."

In Italian, the auxiliary is either avere or essere. 

Present: mangio
Past: mangiavo
Present Perfect: ho mangiato
Past Perfect: avevo mangiato

In the last two, mangiato is the participle.

Present: vengo
Past: venivo
Present perfect: sono venuto
Past perfect: era venuto
(I come, I came, I have come, I had come)

In the last two, venuto is the participle.

When to use essere in Italian?

There are three fairly solid rules that cover most verbs:

  1. All transitive verbs use avere. That is, if the verb has a direct object, it takes avere
  2. All reflexive verbs use essere
  3. Simple verbs of motion take essere. Go, come, etc.

Beyond this, I'll paraphrase Maiden and Robustelli (section 14.20). For intransitive verbs, essere tends to be used for verbs that emphasize a final state rather than the process that led to the state and for those whose subjects had little to do with controlling the action. So cambiare (to change) takes essere as does annegare (to drown).

Intransitive verbs that take avere tend to be ones whose subjects play a major role in the action or state of the verb. So agire (to act) and nuotare (to swim) both take avere.

When does the Participle Change for Number or Gender?

In the example above, "I have come" was sono venuto, but that only works if I'm a man. A woman would say sono venuta. For a group of people, we would say sono venuti "they have come" unless the group was all women, in which case we'd say sono venute. On the other hand in the case of eating (as an intransitive verb), the participle never changes. Ho mangiato, ha mangiato, hanno mangiato, etc.

So what's the rule?

Whenever the auxiliary is essere the participle always agrees with the subject. As I just illustrated, this is true even when the subject is "I."

When the auxiliary is avere the participle doesn't ever change for an intransitive verb. When the verb is transitive, the following applies:
  1. If the direct object is one of the five clitics (pronouns) lo, la, li, le, ne, then the participle must agree with the object (not the subject).
  2. For other direct-object clitics (mi, ti, ci, vi) agreement is optional.
  3. If the direct object is a noun, then the participle never changes, although you may see it in older literature.
There are some good examples on, although the explanation isn't (as of September 2014) up to their usual standards.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Learning a Foreign Language by Reading a Novel

Reading for Pleasure vs. Reading to Learn

My previous posts on using a Kindle to read in a foreign language outline most of what you need to know to do pure extensive reading--that is, reading just for enjoyment. Sometimes, though, you want to do a bit of intensive reading with the explicit goal of improving your language ability. This week's post talks about how to do that.

Intensive and Extensive Reading

The notion that you can learn a foreign language as a side-effect of reading for pleasure in that language is called extensive reading, as contrasted with intensive reading, which is when you analyse a text until you have understood it thoroughly. Teachers of English as a foreign language have had great success with extensive reading; when properly directed, it's a key part of many if not most ESL programs today.

The #1 principle for a successful extensive reading program is that "the reading material is easy." For this reason, most extensive reading programs direct students to what are called "graded readers." These are texts that are deliberately written with limited vocabulary and simplified grammar for the purpose of making the reading easier.

My experience has been that using a device like a Kindle makes the reading experience so much easier that you can do extensive reading with authentic texts, which I'll define as being texts written by and for adult native speakers. Richard Day talks about "the rule of hand," which says there should be no more than 5 difficult words per page. For readers using a Kindle, I would amend that to say "no more than five difficult words despite the dictionary look-up."

Scott Thornbury wrote a fascinating account of his attempt to improve his Spanish strictly using extensive reading (never using the dictionary at all). He was already a very advanced Spanish speaker, so it makes some sense that it didn't help him as much, but I think the important takeaway from his experience is that you need to do some of both. Extensive reading is fun and it does improve your ability as a side-effect. Intensive reading is--well, intense--and you can't do a lot of it, but it pushes you ahead faster.

Learning Objectives

There are four things to try to improve in the course of reading:
  • Simple vocabulary. These are words that have easy translations into English. For example, in Spanish "to melt" is derretir. That's a common enough word that if you didn't already know it, you probably want to make an effort to memorize it.
  • Collocations. These are combinations of words whose meanings aren't obvious from the pieces. For example, in Spanish dar is the verb "to give" and por is "for" but dar por is "to consider" as in "I consider him a friend." Lo doy por amigo does not mean "I give him for a friend." These can be tricky because the words don't always come right next to each other.
  • Basic grammar. This is the material covered in a basic college textbook. How to conjugate the verbs, how to decline the adjectives and nouns, when agreement is required, etc. You should have already been exposed to the entire basic grammar before attempting to read a novel, but that doesn't mean you know it by second nature.
  • Complex grammar. Sometimes people are surprised to learn that languages have grammar beyond what they learned in school. When reading a book, you'll find sentences that seem to make no sense at all unless you know one of these extra rules. For example, in French, Spanish, and Italian, the form that you learned as the future tense is also used as a "suppositional" tense. So the Italian sentence Avrà potuto nuotare does not mean "He will have been able to swim" but "He probably managed to swim."

Each of these objectives needs a different method of attack, and you need to arm yourself accordingly.


Ones you buy

Some things are worth paying for. Here are the key ones:
  1. An electronic bilingual dictionary. We've talked about this already, but the speed of doing look-ups on a Kindle is what really transforms the reading experience. This is where you'll find most of the words and collocations.
  2. If you have lost your original college or high-school language textbooks, you'll want to get one of the "Schaum's Outline of [your target language] Grammar" books as a resource for the basic grammar. A quick read through it will tell you what you ought to refresh yourself on before attempting a novel, just in case you've forgotten some of the basic grammar.
  3. A reference grammar. This is a book of 500 to 1,000 pages that explains countless nuances of the grammar. Like an encyclopedia, this is not the sort of book you read straight through, but it is the place to go for complex grammar questions.
  4. An English translation of the novel. This one is debatable. I've read nine foreign novels now, and I've only used English translations for two of them. In both cases, the novels were from the mid 19th century, and I was concerned they might use grammar that wasn't covered in my reference materials. If you do use someone else's translation, the key is to use it sparingly.

Free ones

The Internet is rich in free resources, but I want to list some of the most important ones.
  • WordReference is the ultimate online dictionary for a dozen languages. It has pronunciations, it gives verb conjugations, it has collocations. It also has forums where native speakers can answer questions for you. Note: you will get better results if you can ask your questions in their language.
  • Linguee claims to have the results of over 1,000,000,000 translations, and it's a good place to look for suspected collocations that you couldn't find elsewhere. Paste in a phrase and see how professional translators have translated it in other documents.
  • Duolingo turns language learning into a game. If you're ready to read a novel, Duolingo may be too elementary for you, but it includes a translation section called "Immersion," which is excellent practice for reading. In Immersion, people try collaboratively to translate texts, mostly from Wikipedia. It also has forums for people who are trying to learn English, and those can be a good place to ask language questions--especially if you're willing to write in their language. I have a posting about how to get the most out of Duolingo.
  • Anki is a free flashcard program. It's hard to beat as a way to drill yourself on new vocabulary and collocations. Steer clear of the decks others have constructed, though; write your own flash cards so you're studying just the words that you need to. Otherwise the flashcard task can become so overwhelming that you quit doing it. Adding ten new words per day is a reasonable upper limit. I have a posting about using Anki flashcards for vocabulary drill. Note: The Kindle has a built-in flashcard system called "Vocabulary Builder." Don't turn it on! It gradually makes your Kindle slower and slower until it locks up and you have to reset it.
  • lets people organize groups for (among other things) native speakers and learners to meet regularly to chat informally. If there is a group near you, by all means go and talk about what you're reading. It's also a great place to ask questions about sentences that stumped you.

The Process

So how do you use all of this to read intensively? The general idea is to read some unit (say a paragraph) and make a solid attempt to understand it before resorting to any of the materials above. Then you use the resources in roughly this order:
  1. Use the monolingual dictionary for any words you're not absolutely sure of. Don't feel bad about looking up words you already guessed correctly; there are lots of "false friends" out there. (E.g. embarazada means "pregnant" in Spanish.) Whenever you look up a word, decide whether it's worth memorizing. Common words (e.g. sidewalk) and words the author uses a lot are worth it. Names of plants, animals, foods, etc. are probably not. Highlight anything you think you should memorize and add it to your flashcards later.
  2. If you can't make out the monolingual definition, switch to the bilingual, as I described last week. When you've figured out the word, switch back to the monolingual and see if you can make sense of the definition now. It is is important to get comfortable with the monolingual because it will generally be a far better dictionary than the bilingual and also, the more time you spend immersed in the language, the faster you'll learn.
  3. Sometimes there is no definition in the bilingual. In that case, open the monolingual as a book and then use the bilingual to read the definition. In general you shouldn't have to do this, because dictionary definitions are usually written using simplified vocabulary, but sometimes there is no other way. (I describe this in detail in my review of Sostiene Pereira.)
  4. If that fails, use Wikipedia--especially if the word looks like it might be a proper name. The Kindle will take you to Wikipedia for the language you're reading in--not the English version--so be prepared. Often it's enough just to know that it's a plant, or an animal, or a location. This will only work if you're online, of course. Otherwise, highlight the sentence so you can find it later.
  5. Sometimes the issue is basic grammar. You simply didn't realize that this particular verb had an irregular past-tense form. That would be a good time to consult with the grammar outline (or your old college text book). Maybe even do some exercises. You will have a very hard time reading if there are aspects of the basic grammar that you don't really understand.
  6. Other times the dictionary fails you because it doesn't support compound words or because the inflected word happens to look the same as a different word. A good English example is "carving". If you wanted the definition of "to carve" it won't help much for the dictionary to show you a definition for the noun "carving." In those cases, you open the dictionary as a book and manually look the word up. This is a defect, so consider submitting a complaint to Amazon.
  7. If all the words seem to make sense individually, but you're not sure how they work together, then it's time to consult the reference grammar. The reference grammar is especially useful if you're pretty sure what the sentence has to mean but you're not sure how is can mean that. For example, as mentioned above, you would probably know from context that Avrà potuto nuotare had to refer to a past event, but couldn't figure out how the future tense verb fit in there. A quick look at the future tense section of the reference grammar will explain it clearly.
  8. If none of that worked, try the Bing translate feature. Select the sentence and see what Bing has to say. If you did all the work described above, you'll have most of the sentence figured out, so even if Bing makes some hilarious errors, you have an excellent chance of finding what you need in the parts it gets right. For me, this is especially helpful when I have made some assumption about a word that just isn't correct. For example, you might not have known that esperar can mean "to wait for" not just "to hope," and you didn't even think of looking it up. The Bing translation will likely call your attention to it.
  9. If all else has failed, go ahead and look at the English translation, if you have it. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of doing this only in the last extremity. It is very easy to look at the translation, look back at the original, and say to yourself "Oh, I get it," and keep on reading without realizing that you still don't know how to read that sentence. So if you do resort to using someone else's translation, at least get the most out of it. Now that you know what the sentence means, dig into it and be sure you understand exactly why it means that. Is it a collocation you didn't know about? Or an obscure grammar rule? Was it as simple as misreading a word entirely? Whatever it is, figure it out.
  10. For things that you can't figure out to save your soul, highlight the sentence, bookmark the page, and bring it to a native speaker for help. I really recommend meetups for this, since it gives you a topic to talk about, but there are online forums you can use as well. 
Obviously you don't have to do all these steps all the time. Even when I'm reading extensively, I do steps 1-4. When I'm reading intensively, I sometimes highlight problems for later study rather than doing them on the spot. Remember that extensive reading will improve your language a lot all by itself; only do intensive study when you're in the mood to do it. Don't let it spoil the book for you!

Highlighted words

So what do you do with the things you highlighted? Install the free Kindle application on your PC or laptop and open your book there. (You can have the same book on five or six different Kindles without having to pay extra.) You'll be able to see all your highlights. This makes it easy to use WordReference, Linguee, or other online references to look words up. This is a good time to use Anki to create a few flashcards. If you bought the Kindle version of the reference grammar, the online app is generally a better place to read it than the e-Reader Kindle because reference grammars usually contain big tables.

I usually process highlights backwards from my current place in the book. Don't let it overwhelm you. Do as many as you feel like and then just let the rest of them go.

Final Thoughts

I'm usually motivated to thoroughly understand a problem sentence when I think I've seen the same problem two or three times in a row. For example, when I was reading my first novel in Spanish, I realized I was confused about the clitic pronouns le and les. When I dug into the reference grammar, I realized that I had never understood how to use them properly, and a half-hour's reading clarified things considerably. This made the whole rest of the book much more pleasant to read, so it was well worth the effort. With practice, you'll figure out when it's worth it and when it's not.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Better Reading on a Kindle

Last week, I explained how to use a bilingual dictionary on a Kindle to read novels in foreign languages. This week I'm going to talk about strategy for using the dictionary, how to switch back and forth between the bilingual and the monolingual dictionary, and how to use the translation option.

When to Use the Dictionary

As a rule, you want to immerse yourself in the text in the target language, making as few lookups as possible. The more you can immerse yourself, the better the reading experience and the more you'll learn. So you should guess at unknown words, where possible, rather than looking them up--at least at first. Sometimes the next sentence will clue you in, so try to finish the whole paragraph before going back to look up words you couldn't figure out. (Don't overdo this, though; there's no point reading if you're not understanding.)

If your command of the language is strong enough, try using the monolingual dictionary instead of the bilingual one. That gives a better immersion experience, but it's also more of a challenge. My own experience has been that when I am first trying to read in a language, I use the bilingual dictionary almost exclusively, but as I get more and more practice reading, I make more and more use of the monolingual. Do what's comfortable for you. (I'll illustrate how to switch between them shortly.)

How the Dictionary Can Fail

When you do look up a word in the bilingual dictionary, you can fail either because there was no entry at all or because none the available entries made any sense in the sentence. If you are looking up a common word, there may be so many entries that it takes too long to find the right one. The monolingual is likely to be much larger than the bilingual, but it can fail for the same reasons, plus, it can "fail" because you're unable to make sense of the definition.

For illustration purposes, I'll use the book Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate). You don't need to speak Spanish, since I'll explain everything along the way.

The first chapter is called "January: Christmas Cakes"

The first page is the ingredient list for a recipe. The entire list is readable without trouble except for the very last word, although sardines, sausage, onions, oregano, and chilies do seem like odd ingredients for a Chrismas cake. But when you try to look up teleras, you get this:

When the Kindle can't find a word in the dictionary associated with a book, it automatically tries to find that word in Wikipedia. This is almost always the wrong thing to do for a foreign student who is just beginning to read the language, but it does make a certain amount of sense for a native speaker. The monolingual dictionary is meant to be so large that anything it doesn't have is probably a proper name.

You Don't Always Need to Figure it Out Right Away

At this point, you need to decide whether it's worth it to research the word now (or at all). In this case, it makes a certain amount of sense to say "Oh well, it's some kind of food" and skip over it.

If you think you'll want to come back to it later, tap "More" and you'll get this screen:

Then tap "Highlight". The highlighted text will be easy to find on any Kindle device or Kindle app--including one on your phone. (There's an option to go to note/marks.) That's lets you either come back to research it yourself at a later time or show it to a native-speaker friend.

Machine Translation is Limited

If you look at the previous screen again, you'll see there is a "Translation" option, which automatically invokes Bing translate, provided you have an Internet connection. Machine translation is flaky at the best of times, and it is at its worst when dealing with single words. In this case, here's what it gives you:

Whatever teleras means, it has to be something you can eat, so this result is useless to us.

Using the Monolingual Dictionary

Normally, when you press on a word, the Kindle shows you a definition from the current dictionary and offers you the option to switch to any other dictionary. For some reason, Amazon does not let you do this when the original lookup failed. You must look up some other word and then you can change dictionaries. At one time, it would automatically default to a second dictionary, but apparently that feature has been removed.

To switch dictionaries, then, simply look up any other common word, cebolla (onion) for example.

Down at the bottom right, it gives the name of the dictionary, "HarperCollins Spanish-English College Dictionary". Tap that and the Kindle offers you a choice of dictionaries:

The monolingual Spanish dictionary is el diccionario de la lengua Española (usually just called the "DRAE" or even just the "RAE"). It is the authoritative dictionary in the Spanish-speaking world, it's enormous, and it's free on the Kindle. Select that dictionary and we get a much, much longer definition for cebolla.

By doing this, we have changed the default dictionary for the book. Now we can close that entry and press on teleras. This time we get a definition! Of course, it's entirely in Spanish, and it's also very long.

There are a total of ten definitions, and, depending on your level of Spanish, it could be quite challenging to actually read all of them, but the first one clearly is about something made of iron, the second is something made of poles, etc. We know it must be something you can eat, so we can eliminate nine of the ten definitions without fully understanding them. In this case, the very last one is what we want:

A reader with intermediate Spanish ability should be able to figure out from this that a telera is some sort of bread, that's it's large, oval shaped, and usually eaten by workers. For most readers, that should be sufficient and they can continue with the story.

Using the Monolingual as a Book

Suppose you're not "most readers" and you really, really want to know what bazo means in that definition. In that case, you'll want to open the monolingual dictionary as a book and then use the bilingual dictionary to read it. Start by tapping "More".

Notice that there's a new option: "Open Dictionary." Tap on this, and you've opened the DRAE as a book, positioned in the same place.

Now you can select bazo and look it up.

The reader can probably puzzle out that it's an adjective meaning "brown verging on yellow." The second definition seems to say something about the viscera of vertebrates and something that's dark red, irregular, and usually to the left of the stomach. We hope that's not what goes into the Christmas cakes!

If you switch to the bilingual dictionary at this point, it simply offers "spleen" as a translation, which is consistent with the DRAE's second definition, but obviously (we hope) not applicable to the recipe.

Finally, at the very bottom of the screen, the DRAE tells us that pan bazo is a collocation. That is, the two words together mean more than "brownish-yellow bread."  Much as "brown sugar" means more than just sugar that someone has dyed brown. To explore this further, we should actually be looking at the definition for pan (bread).

Translation inside the Dictionary

Since we already have the dictionary open, we can search for pan just by pressing on the word, but before we do that, it's worth trying to use the translation option again. We select the whole sentence this time.

We tap "More" and then "Translate," as before.

Once you stop laughing, notice that it actually got the correct meanings for all the words except bazo; it simply messed up the grammar. (Figuring out what's the subject and what's the object is one of the special challenges of reading Spanish.)

This actually highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the translation option. It can find a lot of information for you, even though the result is comical. It helps the most after you have already taken a stab at understanding the sentence on your own. Sometimes it supplies that one bit of information you were missing.

In particular, it excels at finding collocations, even though in this case it comes up dry.

If we go ahead and look up pan, we'll find an entry for pan bazo which explains how to prepare it, but I'll stop here. As a general rule, trying to hunt down the exact names of local foods isn't a great idea. The truth is, the best translation of telera into English is probably "telera."


I've illustrated how to switch back and forth between the bilingual and monolingual dictionaries, how to use the highlight and translation options, and how to open the monolingual dictionary as a book. 

In next week's posting, I'll discuss how to use online resources besides the Kindle to research hard-to-translate words. For example, if we google telera we immediately find that it looks pretty much like we expected it to.

Monday, September 08, 2014

How to Read a Foreign Novel on a Kindle

The Challenge

If you speak a foreign language well enough to puzzle out newspaper articles, you have probably at one time or another attempted to read a novel.

And it kicked your butt.

If you got five pages into it, you did very well indeed. Even five paragraphs is more than I think most people could manage, unless they had a copy of the English translation at hand.

The reason for this is that a strong student finishes a two-year college language program knowing about 2,000 "word-families." (Run, runs, runner, running, runny, etc. are part of one word family.) But to read "authentic" novels (written by and for adult native speakers) one needs a knowledge of about 6,000. The "beginners paradox" states that you can only learn those extra 4,000 word families by reading, but you can't read until you know those 4,000 word families. You end up needing to check every fifth word in the dictionary, and that effort defeats you. One in fifty is thought to be the limit for pleasure reading. That is, you must know 98% of the words on the page without a dictionary--not counting words you can guess from context. (You can find a good summary of current thinking in Paul Nation's "How much input do you need to learn the most frequent 9,000 words?" [Reading in a Foreign Language, October 2014]).

I have spoken fluent (B-level) Spanish for forty years, but despite multiple attempts, I never got past the first page or two of a novel until September 2013 when I attempted a Spanish novel on a Kindle and was astonished to polish it off in four days. In the following twelve months, I have read six Spanish novels, two Italian novels, and I'm 50% of the way through the French novel Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon) by Jules Verne. In this post, I'm going to outline how to do it.

Choosing a Kindle

For my reading, I use a Kindle Paperwhite e-reader. This is the version that says "Amazon" (not "Kindle") on the back. I read my first Spanish novel on a Kindle Touch, and, of course it does work, but it's a bit more limited and it's not what I'll be describing here. Update October 22, 2014: I have tested it with the new Kindle Voyage, and it works exactly the same way the Paperwhite does.

A Kindle Fire will not work, nor will any of the Kindle apps for PCs, tablets, or phones. The reason is that, at this writing, none of those allows you to use a bilingual dictionary. As will be clear below, it's the bilingual dictionary that makes this work. Update October 22, 2014. Several people have reported that this does work with the iPad Kindle app. It still does not work with the PC app or the Windows Phone app.

To repeat, you must actually buy one of the dedicated e-reader devices--those black-and-white things that can only be used for reading books. None of the Kindle apps for more sophisticated devices will work for this purpose. (Update: one person claims the reader for the iPhone will now let you choose a bilingual dictionary. Someone else told me about a way to hack an Android device to change the dictionary, but I don't think most people want to hack [and possibly break] their devices.)

Choosing a Book

(Update: I have since written a much longer post on finding foreign novels to read. This section is still a good summary, though.)

Because reading in a foreign language is challenging--especially for the first novel you attempt in a language--it's important to pick something exciting. It will be very, very tempting to give up during that first chapter. For that reason, I like mysteries or thrillers. Literature, even if it's your goal, is not the place to start.

Second, I personally avoid novels for children; the grammar is no simpler, the vocabulary will be filled with words of limited use to adults (e.g. tug-of-war), and the dialogue is apt to contain slang expressions found only in the Urban Dictionary. On the other hand, the pictures probably do help.

Third, I avoid translations of English novels. This point is debatable, if your goal it to make it easier, since translators use a simpler vocabulary than native authors. (For example, words like azure, cobalt, or cerulean are apt to become just "blue" when translated.) However, as I mentioned above, I'm going for the "authentic" reading experience, so, for me, translations are out. As are books that were specifically written for foreigners studying the language. I only consider books written by and for native adult speakers of the language.

Fourth, I usually choose contemporary novels, since historical works often use obsolete words and even obsolete grammar. (It will be obvious that Cinq semaines en ballon breaks several of these rules. More on that in a later post.)

Amazon sells quite a few foreign-language books for the Kindle, and although archaic publishing laws mean that recent best sellers may not be available (another topic for a future post), there are still hundreds of thousands of books to choose from, many at prices under one dollar.

As soon as you buy any book in a foreign language, the Kindle will offer you the options to set up the device for reading it. Those options are not available before you do this. If you want to do the setup before settling on the book you really want to read, pick any of the many books available for free in that language. Once you've downloaded it, the Kindle will recognize you as a bilingual reader and you can finish setting up the device. (Update November 19, 2014: It is no longer necessary to do any special setup.)

Choosing a Dictionary

A bilingual dictionary is a dictionary with entries in one language and definitions in another one. As I mentioned above, a good bilingual dictionary is essential, I have had good success with the Collins products for Spanish, Italian, and French, which I'll describe in more detail in later posts. The most important thing is to remember that although a physical bilingual dictionary is really two books in one--Foreign-to-English and English-to-Foreign--the Kindle bilinguals are sold separately. Be sure you buy the Foreign-to-English dictionary (definitions in English), since you will be reading in a foreign language; you are not trying to write your own novel in a foreign language!

Note that the bilingual dictionary does not count as a foreign-language book. As we'll see later, the Kindle considers it a book in English, since that's what the definitions are written in.

As soon as you downloaded that first book in a foreign language, the Kindle should have made a huge monolingual dictionary available to you as well for free. For example, a French dictionary with definitions in French. You will actually make use of both dictionaries at one time or another. As you become a stronger reader, you will make more and more use of the monolingual dictionary, but in the beginning, you will only use it for words that are not found in the bilingual dictionary.

Setting up the Kindle

Update November 19, 2014: If you have the latest version of Kindle Voyage or Paperwhite, you should be able to skip this section entirely. If you have an older Kindle, you may still need to do this.

Begin at the Kindle home screen:

Click on the menu (the  button in the upper right) and choose "settings."

Second from the bottom, click "Device Options"

At the bottom of the screen, click "Language and Dictionaries"

You should see an entry for every language represented on your Kindle. Press on the entry for the language you're planning to start reading.

The Monolingual dictionary will probably be selected, but you don't want it to be the default. Instead, click on the bilingual dictionary you just bought. Don't forget to click "OK" or else it won't take effect.

Now you're ready to read your novel!

Reading on the Kindle

The basic idea behind reading on the Kindle is very simple. When you see a word you don't know, you press on it and the definition from the bilingual dictionary pops up. For example, here's a page from Cinq semaines en ballon:

Let's look at the first paragraph. "The night became very dark." No problem there, although literally it seems to say "The night made itself very dark." (I'll discuss how to learn more grammar in a later post.) First part of the second sentence is okay, up to the semicolon: "The doctor had not managed to check out the countryside:" but the second part of the sentence has an unknown word in it: "he had [verb] to a very tall tree, a confused mass in the darkness, which he barely identified."

So press on accroché and Kindle pops up the definition:

The second definition is clearly the one we want. The professor tied the ballon up to a tall tree.

Update November 19, 2014: If you tap on the name of the dictionary in the dialog box ("Collins French-English Dictionary and Grammar" in the example) Kindle gives you a list of dictionaries to choose from.)

Update December 15, 2014: Be sure the "Vocabulary Builder" option is turned off. There appears to be a bug in it which causes your Kindle to get slower and slower and eventually lock up, forcing you to reset it.

With this, you now know enough, in theory, to read a novel on the Kindle. I have a number of tips for how to make this work better and for how to learn more about the language in the process, and I'll discuss those in the next post. One should actually try reading at least a few paragraphs or chapters now. The suggestions for improving the process will much much more sense once you're done a little reading on your own.

You should definitely be able to read more than five paragraphs this time.

Monday, September 01, 2014

(French Translation) Protests Against Israel, Which Wants To Appropriate Land In The West Bank

I translated this from Protestations contre Israël, qui veut s'approprier des terres en Cisjordanie, published in Le Monde today. This a test of how good my French is after 230 days of study--I'm not expressing a political opinion with this.

Protests Against Israel, Which Wants To Appropriate Land In The West Bank

On Monday, September 1, the United states called on Israel to annul its decision to appropriate 400 Ha (1000 acres) of land in the West Bank, in Gva’ot, in the Bethlehem area. This announcement, less than one week after the cease-fire between Hamas and the Israeli government, is perceived as a provocation.
The area is extra sensitive, because it was there that three young Israeli youths were abducted and killed in June—one of the precipitating events of the war between Hamas and the Israeli army in the Gaza strip. Israel has attributed their abduction and murder to the Islamic organization [Hamas], which denies initiating those acts.

The Egyptian minister of foreign affairs has denounced a decision that “contravenes international law and will have a negative impact on the peace process.”

“This announcement . . . is counter-productive to the fixed objective that Israel reach a solution negotiated two-state solution with the Palestinians. We demand the Israeli government annul this decision,” declared the United States Department of State.

It will “only make the situation even worse,” deplored Nabil Abou Roudeina, spokesperson for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, reasserting that the international community would consider colonies in occupied territory illegal. These “crimes would wipe out all prospect of a two-state [Israeli and Palestinian] solution,” the Palestinian negotiator Saëb Erakat also said.

“Collective Punishment Inflicted on Israelis”

Amnesty International has called on Israel to “stop, once and for all, confiscating property in the West Bank.” For Amnesty, this announcement represents “the biggest land grab in the occupied territories since 1980.”

Under Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, since 2009, the number of residences and houses constructed in the West Bank has gone from 1,500 and 1,800 in previous years to 2,000 and 2,500, the anti-colonization organization La Paix maintains. Moreover, the movement has moved eastwards and into the interior of the West Bank, according to Hagit Ofran, an official of the Israeli organization [La Paix]. This decision is a “collective punishment inflected on Israelis that takes us even further away from the perspective of peace between two states for two people,” she said.

A “New City”

The council of colonies of Gush Etzion, a bloc of colonists located in a zone entirely under Israeli control, and where the coveted territory is located, greeted the birth of a “new city.” Gush Etzion belongs to those territories that the Israelis definitely intend to keep in the event of any settlement with the Palestinians. About 60,000 people live there now, according to La Paix, but only 10 to 15 families in Gva’ot.

In all, 350,000 colonists live in the West Bank, and around 200,000 in East Jerusalem, according to the NGO [La Paix]. The pursuit of colonization—construction of civilian residences in the territories occupied or annexed by Israel since 1967—is largely considered a major hindrance to to the efforts rolled out over the decades to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


I've been reading bits and pieces from Le Monde for many weeks now, but I this is the first article I've done in its entirety. Since I know the material already, I could guess at the meanings of lots of words without having to look them up, but I made a point of using the dictionary anyway--just to be sure. Even so, I only needed to look up about ten words out of the 500, which puts me right on the threshold of being able to read without a dictionary. That's excellent progress for only 34 weeks of study, at least by the standards I'm used to. I think it speaks very strongly to the benefits of using modern technology to support language learning.