I can read this !

Hi everyone – long time, no see – it’s so frustrating not to have more time to write (!)

I’m putting this post up on the fly. 

I’m in the long, hard slog phase of last night’s hard-drive-wipe-and-reinstall event.

Recovery from a wipe-and-reinstall event entails many twists and turns, among them the (surprise!) need to search through email to recover addresses that disappeared from my address book, for reasons unknown.

Naturally, looking at email for the purposes of address-recovery leads to looking at email for the purposes of not-address-recovery…. 

… and so, because my quest to learn French (and Spanish) has nothing whatsoever to do with my desire to locate disappeared email address, I opened French Today‘s Unique French Tips —- and found I could instantly and fluently read this:

En France, les fleurs associées à la mort sont les chrysanthèmes et les cyclamènes, car elles résistent au gel et sont donc parfaites pour mettre sur les tombes en ce mois de novembre. Attention donc de ne jamais offrir ces fleurs en France… Ce serait un gros faux-pas.

In France, flowers associated with death are mums and cyclamens, because they are frost resistant and are therefore perfect to put on the tombs in this month of November. So be careful to never give these flowers as a gift in France. It would be a big faux-pas.

I stumbled over gel, although I knew the word, but that was it. Otherwise, I read these lines as quickly as I would read the same lines in English.

I’m thrilled!

I owe this to a 264-day streak on Duolingo (plus 1 year of high-school French and a few weeks of French at the Alliance Française decades ago). On Duolingo, I’ve done 6 French lessons a day for the vast majority of days, plus 1 for Spanish, the language I studied beginning in middle school and then all through high school and into college. 

I’ve also made it through 4559 of Lingvist‘s 5000 French words. It’s a good thing, too, because Lingvist’s algorithm has decided to stop giving me new words. I have no idea why. I paid for Premium Lingvist, the version that lets you practice 100 cards a day as opposed to just 50, but the program stalled out several weeks ago at 4559 words, possibly because I’m teaching and can no longer practice 100 cards a day.

Another thing to deal with.

Anyway, point is, after nearly 9 months of daily practice, I can read a simple French text as quickly as I can read a simple English text.

That’s major. 

The language apps use information-integration learning, and they work. 

How hard is it to learn English, part 2

Doug points out that how hard it is for an adolescent or adult to learn English depends on what language the learner speaks now.

He’s right, and the original op ed made the same point.

The Foreign Service Institute actually has a ranking of languages in terms of difficulty for English speakers, along with an estimate of how long it takes to reach S-3/R-3 proficiency (which I assume means Speaking and Reading proficiency measured on a scale of 0 to 5).



Looking at the chart now (I’ve seen only abbreviated versions in the past), I notice that they seem to consider French quite a bit more difficult than Spanish, at least in terms of the time they estimate it takes to go from 0 to S-3/R-3. That’s certainly the way it seems to me. 

24 weeks for Spanish, 30 for French.

600 to 750 “class hours” in all.


Comic relief

C. and I both decided to try our luck with Duolingo Russian a couple of weeks ago.

Neither of us could get through even one lesson without losing so much “health” that the app froze us out and told us to come back and start over again when our health was “full.”

Normally you can “refill” health by doing practice sessions, but if you haven’t passed even one lesson, you’re out of luck. Duolingo doesn’t let you practice just the two questions you got right before you made 5 mistakes in a row and got the boot.

Our only cost-free option was to wait overnight (Duolingo restores your health while you sleep), re-start Lesson 1 the next day, lose all 5 health ‘bars’ again, then repeat the cycle. 

Either that, or we could buy health in the Duolingo Store.

Needless to say, the idea of getting into a health-buying/1st-lesson failing loop didn’t hold a lot of appeal.

We could have just ditched the app and done the lesson online, but we were in the car at the time, not sitting in front of a laptop. There was no way to get online because Duolingo doesn’t let you log onto Duolingo-online from a mobile device. 

So, long story short, we’re not learning Russian on Duolingo.

C’est la vie.

And see: How hard is it to learn English?

Greetings from Estonia

I’ve been using Lingvist as well as Duolingo to study French, and have just this week subscribed to Memrise as well.

I’m using Duolingo to study Spanish at the same time. Possibly a bad idea, but there it is.

Spanish is the language I’ve studied longest, and I’ve always wanted to finally be able to understand Spanish-speaking people, so … although I’ll be spending 6 weeks in Paris, I didn’t want to ‘give up’ my Spanish. So I’m doing one Duolingo “Experience” in Spanish each day along with 6 Experiences in French. Plus 100 French cards on Lingvist.

Oddly, the only serious interference between French and Spanish I’ve experienced so far involves the word for ice cream. What’s odd about that is the fact that I don’t remember how to say “ice cream” in either language, so why should not remembering how to say “ice cream” in Spanish interfere with remembering how to say “ice cream” in French ? 

Whenever I’m asked to supply the French word for ice cream, I recall instead that the Spanish word for ice cream begins with an ‘h,’ which makes me think the French word starts with an ‘h,’ too.

After that my mind becomes a complete blank. 

Ice cream in Spanish: helado
Ice cream in French: glacé

Why helado-starts-with-an-h should obstruct glacé-starts-with-a-g, I don’t know.


Sante !

I have no idea whether fanning out among multiple apps is wise. I was thinking that using different apps might give me a slightly different take on the language, or perhaps different points of entry to each word, which might make the words easier to remember.

I don’t know that I’m getting different perspectives on French, and it’s impossible to tell whether multiple apps speed up my recall of the same words.

But I’m definitely getting a whole new perspective on Estonia, the home country of Lingvist’s creator.

Lingvist takes a more sober view of French than do either Duolingo or Memrise. I mean that literally: Memrise teaches you how to say “Bottoms up” in the first 10 words.

Which is kind of funny when you think about it, since nobody says “Bottoms up” in English. 

Sante !

Lingvist’s sobriety is a lot of fun after all the green owls and health bars and space cadets and whatnots of the other two. Nevertheless, I frequently find Lingvist funny, in a sweet-funny kind of way.

For instance, according to Lingvist, I know 1,422 French words (I think that’s 1,422 words, not word families, but I’m not sure) which would allow me to read 77% of the words of any text.

To read fluently, you need to know 98% of the words of a text, so I’m months away from my reading goal. Yet Lingvist thinks it’s important for me, at this stage of the game, to comprehend the following:

Ce qui représente entre six et huit réalisations par an

Which represents between six to eight realisations per year

I have trouble envisioning myself ever wishing to say anything of this nature in French.

All the more so given that I don’t know what a realisation is in English.

Not happy, Duolingo edition

From a week ago, the review I wrote of the Duolingo app after that morning’s “Health” crash:

I wouldn’t bother with this app. Use the desktop version instead.

Better yet, download Lingvist & skip Duolingo altogether.

The Duolingo app’s “Health” system — which the desktop version does not have — is beyond frustrating.

Under the Health regime, Duolingo punishes mistakes by freezing the lesson you’re trying to learn.

You’re allowed 5 mistakes, max, and that’s the best-case scenario. If you begin a new lesson with just 1 “health bar,” you’re allowed to make just 1 mistake. Then you’re locked out.

Once you’re tossed off the system, you have 4 options:

  • complete 5 separate (& lengthy) practice sessions to regain 5 health bars, then start the same lesson all over again
  • wait nearly five hours for Duolingo to unlock your lessons, then start the same lesson all over again
  • use “lingots” to buy health & continue the lesson — if you have enough lingots, which you won’t
  • pay two bucks to continue — then pay another two bucks when you make the same mistakes on the same lesson because you weren’t given enough practice to learn the right answers the first go-round

Worse yet, there’s no way around the Health issue; buying a Duolingo Plus subscription doesn’t exempt you.

It’s a miserable system.

Apart from the frustration of being blocked mid-lesson, there is also the tension of watching your health bars disappear as you try to reach the end of a lesson without another misstep. I’ve now resorted to Googling answers, which Duolingo occasionally declares wrong (more frustration), and which defeats the purpose of forced-choice “information-integration” learning.

This is no way to teach.

The research I’ve looked at says that “information-integration” learning requires “full feedback”: you learn better when you are given negative feedback about wrong answers as well as positive feedback about right answers.

Meanwhile, conscious “rule-based” learning (which you are also doing some of on Duolingo) apparently depends almost entirely on negative feedback about mistakes.

In short, we learn from mistakes, and we need to make mistakes to discover the ‘boundaries’ of a concept or skill. But on Duolingo mistakes are illegal.

To add insult to injury, the Duolingo team has posted a rationale justifying “Health” as a way of preventing app-bingeing.

In my book, trying to get through one lesson without being blocked doesn’t qualify as a binge.

Even if it did, “bingeing” on a language app (for heaven’s sake) is my business, not Duolingo’s.

À plus tard !

I’ve entered a slightly obsessive state …. writing, rewriting, writing, rewriting, writing, rewriting … I am stuck in a freaking loop.

I don’t like loops.

Anyway, long story short, I haven’t read comments.


I also haven’t read my email, or figured out how to use Anki cards with my Fluent Forever pronunciation trainers.

My Duolingo project, on the other hand (thank you, Doug), is proceeding apace, although I’ve recently discovered it is possible to get locked out of the app due to lack of “health.”

Which I don’t understand, health.

Back to the writing-rewriting business, it’s funny how college composition textbooks never mention that aspect of writing. According to every text I’ve consulted, the writing process has 6 stages:

  • Brainstorming
  • Freewriting
  • Drafting
  • Revising
  • Copy editing
  • “Publishing”

Where is Stuck-in-a-loop?

Here’s my two cents.

I don’t think real writers ever free-write.1 Ever, ever, ever, ever.

I certainly don’t. I haven’t free-written a word in my life.

Real writers obsessively write and rewrite the same passage for hours on end. Hours, days, months.

Sometimes years. One of Ed’s colleagues at UCLA took 20 years to write his book. His closest friend here at NYU may have taken longer than that.

They were both really good books, too.

1. Apologies to any real writers who do free write. Also, honesty compels me to add that I’m pretty sure “every text I’ve ever consulted” is probably an exaggeration.

Duolingo is very fun

Doug S recommended trying Duolingo, and I love it.

I don’t know whether it’s the best or the most efficient way to learn a foreign language. John McWhorter likes Glossika, which I assume means he likes Glossika better than Duolingo. It’s possible Duolingo involves too much translating from English to French and back again. I don’t know.

I wish I knew the literature on L2 learning.

In any event, I feel as if I’ve finally found an incontrovertible, absolute argument for the Wonders of Education Technology, a subject on which I have heretofore cast a No Vote: using a language app, you can hear what the words you’re learning sound like.

Plus the supposed convenience of education apps actually is convenient where Duolingo is concerned, and in a way that matters. I’ve never managed to stick with a MOOC, or watch more than one lecture from The Great Courses (which actually are great, as far as I can tell), but I’ve found it easy to return to Duolingo 25 days in a row. Duolingo is so compelling that it was one of my few daily habits that did not crash during the blackout.

Speaking of which, C. just talked to his co-teacher in Mt. Vernon … her electricity is off, and her brother, who works for Con Ed, says it will be days before it’s back on.


She has two young children.

Meanwhile, the lights just flickered off, then flickered back on.

The suspense is killing me.

And see:
The Westchester bomb cyclone and the achievement gap 

Lost in translation

Alright, I’ve just watched the Orientation video for the famed French in Action class. I  am left with two thoughts:

      1. Being fatigué (or fatiguée, in my case) is a lot worse than being tired. (see 15:23)
      2. Also, and related: it may not be possible for a person born and raised in central Illinois to be fatiguée, at least not in public.

Which brings me to my first question: how does one say “Great!” in French?

Or: Good!

As in:

Pascaline: Hi, Catherine, how are you?

Catherine: Great!

Or, alternatively:

Pascaline: Hi, Catherine, how are you?

Catherine: Good!

(Is it rude to say Great! (or Good!) in France? With the exclamation mark?)

That’s my second question.

Mysteries of the apps

Meanwhile, on Doug S’s recommendation, I’ve also devoted myself to Duolingo & Tinycards, which seem terrific and well worth my time.

But I’ve hit a snag:

  • I’m stuck on the difference between bonne soirée and bonsoir
  • I can’t figure out the meaning of Duolingo’s color coding, or its skill charts, or the rules that govern when I get to move on to learning words for food; nor do I know what an ‘xp’ goal is or what “60/20” means in relation to my xp goal, or whether it’s good or bad that I have “6 hours left.” Six hours left till what, exactly?

The plan seems to be for me to carry on learning (or “strengthening“?) Lessons 1, 2, 3, and 4 until a time to be determined, and not by me.

Maybe you have to know when to say bonne soirée before they let you learn the French word for bread.


Duolingo___Learn_French_for_free 2

Is there a Missing Manual for Duolingo?