Not Drowning, Waving

Adventures in multilingualism and the adventure's interfaces

With one stark exception, I did well in school, both in terms of grades and a sense of engagement. The exception: languages other than English. In high school I did poorly in Spanish, French, and Latin, in that order. In college I was required to extend my disappointing entanglement with French. My sophomore year I ran into one of my French instructors outside the classroom — during class we only spoke French — and after some staring and nodding we came to an agreement that it was OK to speak in English if the sun was overhead and no other students were around. Also, were we to have spoken French I wouldn’t really have been able to say much of anything. After dual sighs of relief, we chatted a bit, and I witnessed an expression form on my teacher’s face: “Hey, this kid actually isn’t an idiot.” 

Fresh out of college, I enrolled in night classes in Japanese, and proceeded to do just as poorly. Much later in life, I worked in manga for five years and ended up vice president of multiple departments with dozens of employees, and I still couldn’t manage to pick up any of the language (scanlators, I salute you). The office language instructor had a familiar expression on his face when we ran into each other at a bar one night. 

I exist as, if nothing else, an exception to the idea that someone with a deep interest in music might have a natural inclination toward languages. (More to the point, I think the situation reflects how much writing — in English — I have running through my head at all times.) A big turning point for me in my writing about everyday sound was a trip I took to Tokyo in the mid-2000s, during which I maintained a detailed sound diary. It was all transportation, pachinko, ventilation, birds, device UX, entertainment, etc. Essentially none of it, when I look back, was about language. 

And now as part of my low-grade midlife crisis, I’ve decided to be perhaps the last person on the planet to install Duolingo on one’s phone. I still long for the idea of being able to have some facility with another language, and so I’ve been pondering which language to pursue. Returning to Japanese seems like a natural option. Given my eating habits and my neighborhood in San Francisco, Chinese is also a good idea, though I’m fairly confident more Chinese science fiction will be translated into English than I’ll ever have the time to read. Korean has, hands down, my favorite alphabet on the planet. However, the U.S. State Department tells me those are among the most difficult languages for a native English-speaker to learn, and I don’t think the government had even taken into consideration my well-documented deficiencies. Top of the list (inverse proportion to difficulty) are Romance languages, and a few others. Right below that set is a shorter set, which includes German, which is what I’m currently experimenting with on Duolingo. Germany has more than its share of electronic music, music-instrument makers, music in general, and contemporary art. If nothing else, I’d eventually gain access to the blogs of plenty of musicians and coders. And I’ve always coveted those tiny paperbacks with the yellow spines.

One of the reasons I did poorly with languages is because I do well with patterns. I’d find a pattern in a textbook, and make my way through the lesson quickly. For a while I’d earn solid As, until suddenly I didn’t. It was initially a struggle in Duolingo for me to actually pay attention to the words and to not memorize letter combinations (devoid of pronunciation or meaning) and collate them with their English equivalents. Fortunately, Duolingo reinforces reading with listening and — quite amazingly to me, when trying it for the first time — with speaking. You aren’t just queried to read or to type words or to click on buttons with words, but to identify them by ear and to say them aloud and have your words parsed by a machine and then rated as passing or failing.

Which brings me to the above interface. (This has gone long, so you may need to scroll up before proceeding.) When I first saw this list of options on my cellphone (the answers, by the way, are “Bruder,” “ich,” “mit,” and either “mein” or “meine,” I’m happy to say I actually know), I felt my old pattern habit kick in. The top waveform seemed to suggest two syllables, and the second and third suggested one syllable each. The fourth was ambiguous. This was all a distraction, for two reasons. The first reason is those waveforms are simply there for you to click on: You listen to the words, and then match them with their written English equivalents. Second, those waveforms don’t actually coordinate at all with what is spoken. They’re just different as a subtle means of distinction. It’s almost entirely decorative. I’m not sure anything would be lost if the waveforms all looked exactly the same, and in fact, if you’re prone to pattern-finding, then you might actually find a uniform interface more welcoming. 

There’s plenty to be said about the use of sound in the Duolingo app — the gamification-addled pings, the forgiving nature of the speech grading, the option to register when you’re not in a situation where you can speak, the humorous character voices — and presuming my interest remains as engaged as it has been, and I avoid the sad language-averse path I’ve repeated in the past, then I’ll have more notes to share in the future. Or I should say, die Zukunft.

One thought on “Not Drowning, Waving

  1. Regarding those gamification-addled pings, I am glad you can turn them off. I would’ve stopped using Duolingo long ago if that hadn’t been an option.

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