Sunday, 26 January 2014

The Owl is a real Nag - welcome to Duolingo

Most online learning sites will tell you the same thing - little and often is best.
Better to do a half-hour of Spanish practise per day, than try and do three hours in one day, in an attempt to catch up.

I recently came across a site, which gives you just that, and more, as it's available on your PC, through whichever browser you use, and also as a mobile app.

The website is, where you can choose between Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese ( or learn to speak English in one of ten other languages)

To be honest, I've not looked closely at the very basic sections, as the site allows you to 'Test in' and makes an assessment of your current level of fluency, and you begin from there.
So far I can't say I've learnt anything new, as I think it rated me a little low, but where Duolingo wins is as a fantastic practice and refresher tool.

I personally use the app on my Android device but, when you log in, your performance is saved so you always start where you left off, even if you switch from PC to Tablet to smartphone and back.
Duolingo divides the language up into skill areas such as groups of nouns(e.g.Family,Animals,Colours etc), conjunctions, tenses, adjectives, adverbs, object pronouns etc.

A new skill will appear in your list of choices as greyed-out, if you haven't attempted it  yet.
Once you've mastered it, it turns orange (gold?)
The interesting part is what happens after that.

Although you can continue to plough through the subjects, increasing your 'Level' (part of the 'gameification' of learning which Duolingo uses) skills which you have learned previously lose 'Strength' and you have to keep revisiting them and retesting to bring them back to 'Gold' status
In the image to the left, you can see grey untried skills at the bottom, a gold completed skill on the fourth line, and other skills in various stages of 'Strength' in different colours.

This process of reinforcing skills which you have already mastered, to ensures that you don't forget the basics, while accumulating new skills, is one of the features which makes Duolingo different from some other applications.

So, let's take a look at some of the exercises in Duolingo.
1) Translate Spanish to English
2)Translate English to Spanish
3) Type what you hear - good listening practice
4)Mark ALL correct translations - increases awareness of multiple persons and tenses
5)Select the missing word
There's also a feature which I've not seen in other comparable apps - the ability to speak into your microphone, and have the software assess your pronunciation
Now, it has to be said, there's quite a lot of leeway here. I did manage to make it reject several efforts by deliberately mispronouncing words, but it's quite forgiving, but a nice feature nonetheless.
There are also other exercises which ask you to type in words, to match a picture - simple vocabulary, and a feature I haven't explored much, an opportunity to contribute to the translation of online resources such as Wikipedia.
This helps build your confidence, as it's always aimed at your current skill level, but it's a way of giving something back, while you're learning, which reminds me . . I've left the greatest feature of Duolingo until last  . . . .
Access to both the website and the application for your mobile device is absolutely FREE!!
So, I'm not saying Duolingo will teach you Spanish from scratch although, looking at some of the basic pages, it's not half bad but, if you want a regularly daily dose of Spanish, to help polish up your vocabulary and grammar, and build confidence, that won't take up too much of your day ( a typical session only consists of 20 questions) then look no further than Duolingo.
I personally use it every day.
Finally, one caveat.
The mobile app has a built in 'Nag' feature, which reminds you to practice each day, either by email, or by sounding (typically) your 'incoming text' alert.
This is OK as far as it goes but, the last time I got an alert was 26 and a half hours after my previous session (24hrs, wait a bit, then remind you)
Unfortunately, I'd done my previous session at 10p.m. so I was awoken, rather annoyed, at 00:30 by the nagging Duolingo Owl reminding me to practice my Spanish.
So, be warned, practice early, or turn the reminders OFF!
In any case, make the most of this great free product.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Would have, could have, should have

¡Felíz año nuevo! and welcome to my first post of 2014.

Let's kick the new year off with a little puzzle.
Spot the odd man out.

a) I have done it
b) I would have done it
c) I could have done it

Got it yet?
How about a clue?
One of them will not translate exactly into Spanish
Two of the phrases will end with a past participle, while the other will end in an infinitive.

O.K. it's c)
Here's the reason.

'I have done it' translates as 'lo he hecho', ending in the past participle of the verb 'to do', just as in English, with 'done'

'I would have done it' is 'lo habría hecho', where we use the verb 'haber', in conditional, for 'would have' and end with the past participle of 'hacer'

When you get to 'I could have done it' things come unstuck.
'Could have' is'había podido' and you CANNOT say 'lo había podido hecho'

The issue lies with 'could'.
Even in English, there is no verb 'to can'.
The verb is 'to be able'
So, in Spanish, as I've mentioned in a previous post, the only way to say 'could' is to say 'would be able'

Now, if you do that to our phrase in English, you have to make a significant change to the structure, because you can't say 'I would have been able to DONE it'  so you say 'I would have been able TO DO it'
So, all of a sudden, our sentence doesn't end in a past participle, it ends in an infinitive.
And THAT'S how it translates into Spanish.
'Lo había podido hacer' or 'Había podido hacerlo', which I think sounds better.

Another example of a verb which doesn't behave is 'should'
We use it every day, but what does it actually mean?
If you use 'to have to' instead, I reckon it's a fair match for the verb 'deber' so the structure of 'I should have done it' becomes'I would have had to do it'

OK, it's not an exact match, but you can see how the structure changes from ending in a past participle to ending in an infinitive again, giving us 'Había debido hacerlo'

So, it's worth remembering, if you're struggling to say something in Spanish, think for a moment about what you actually mean in English and see if there's another way of saying it which translates more easily.

Don't forget your New Year's reolution, to practice your Spanish, and have fun doing it.
¡Hasta pronto!