Month: August 2013

Learning Spanish with Duolingo – and some interesting thoughts to go with it.

Duo the Duolingo Owl

Duo the Duolingo Owl

This week, I decided (since I clearly do not have enough to do, what with finishing an MA dissertation, preparing to start the Graduate Diploma in Law, working two days a week etc) to start learning Spanish.

I did French and German at school, and while the French (which I did for five years) has stuck, sort of, at least to the level of being able to pick my way through reading simple phrases, the German (which I did for only three years) really hasn’t. And I regret that, because I have this guilty feeling that I am simply coasting on being an English speaker, relying on – should I go aboard – always being able to find someone who will speak enough English that I won’t have to make the effort, and risk the embarrassment, of trying to speak someone else’s language and getting it wrong.

Hence a search for a way to learn a new language that is cheap (because I have no money), flexible (because I don’t have much time) and effective (because I hate wasting the time I have).

Duolingo came up as pretty good for what I wanted: it’s free, it’s purely online, and lessons are delivered in handy bite-sized little chunks. Plus it’s all set up like a game so, it’s pretty addictive. Nothing like sitting in French lessons chanting the forms of irregular verbs!

So, what’s it like – after three days?

Well, it’s certainly addictive. Maybe I have a simple little mind, but I like the pretty user interface, and I like that you have three or four ‘lives’ – represented by red hearts at the top of the screen – for each lesson; every time you make a mistake, you lose a life. If you lose them all, you have to repeat the lesson. You can also take extra lessons to reinforce things you have already learned. The algorithm behind the program is supposed to deliver you extra lessons depending on things you got wrong, or things you haven’t practiced for a while, so the extra lessons should all be on things that you need to repeat.

The method of learning is also very different to classroom learning (at least, as it was when I was at school). There is no opportunity to just coast along and let your mind go to sleep. Every lesson, you either have to translate from English into Spanish, Spanish into English, or repeat words and phrases through the microphone. So you get to read, write, speak and listen. The one thing that Duolingo can’t do, of course (as far as I know) is have a conversation with you. But, hey, it’s free software. What do you expect? From what I remember from school, the Duolingo method is more interesting, more challenging, and possibly more effective, than the way I was taught in school. It doesn’t spend time explaining rules of grammar – it just teaches you the words and expects you to learn to use them in sentences. Thinking about it, this seems to mimic how babies learn their first language. As far as I know, parents do not sit down with their one-year-old and try to get it to recite all the forms of the verb to be. Instead, they concentrate on teaching the child to say short, simple phrases – and the kid pretty soon picks up which words go together (I + am, not I + are) by being corrected when they get it wrong and praised when they get it right. Thus Duolingo.

It will be interesting to see how far I can get with learning Spanish with Duolingo, although I think the lack of having a conversation facility will be a limiting factor. However, as I mentioned above, it is free. Looking around the web for reviews, I’ve come across quite a few that criticise it for not including conversation practice, and not being nearly as good as one-to-one tuition, or tuition with a professional teacher, or going to live in the relevant country…. well, hello? Free software! What do people expect? Duolingo is not designed to entirely replace human interaction in language-learning. What it is intended to do – and seems to do quite well – is give people a running start in a language. If anyone wants to get beyond quite a basic level, I imagine it will be necessary to find additional materials. There does seem to be an attitude that if a product isn’t perfect, then it’s automatically rubbish. Duolingo isn’t perfect, and I highly doubt that – as it is at the moment – it is capable of turning someone into a fluent speaker of any of the five languages it offers. But if it’s free, and it gets you to a level where you can have a simple conversation in a foreign language, what’s not to like? Not everyone can afford to pay for lessons, or to go and live in a foreign country for a few weeks or months. This is language-learning for the rest of us.

However, starting learning Spanish with Duolingo has led to some rather interesting developments. One of these was a discussion with my husband about the way we see and hear things. When someone speaks, I always see their words in my head, as if they are printed on tickertape (usually black print on white, if you’re interested). And I find it very hard to remember a new word if I haven’t ever seen it written down. It’s almost as if, until it shows on the tickertape (for which I need to know how to spell it), the word doesn’t really exist as communication – it’s just noise. My husband says it’s not the same for him at all. While I see the person, and their words appear on the tickertape, he just sees the person talking. So if a person is saying something very complicated, I tend to look away, or shut my eyes, so I can concentrate on the tickertape. He doesn’t – he concentrates on the person.

Another thing is that we have solved the DVD problem. We don’t have a huge collection of DVDs, but most of them we’ve watched what feels like thousands of times. To the level that – for some – we can quote whole passages. We’d actually stopped watching DVDs together because we didn’t have anything to watch that we hadn’t alread watched to death. However, the Spanish-learning project (which I’ve roped husband into) has given our DVDs a new lease of life! Instead of just watching the DVD, we have the sound in English but with Spanish subtitles. When we know more Spanish, we’ll do it the other way around. The idea is that we’ll learn some new Spanish vocabulary and get used to sentence structures. Last night we watched Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Tonight, we’ll watch Down Periscope. (You can see we have highbrow taste in films.) We both think it works (although you have to read pretty quick before the subtitles disappear) – and it’s a useful counterpoint to Duolingo. Another plan we have is to get Spanish translations of some books that we’ve already read in English; that way, we can compare the English version to the Spanish version, and learn Spanish vocabulary and idiomatic structure at the same time.

Since motivation is the key to learning a new language, the main thing is going to be to keep devoting even just a few minutes a day to Spanish. And we have promised ourselves a trip to Seville as a reward!

Law in Literature

Yesterday, I talked about Lawyers in Literature (lucky lawyers) – today, it’s the law itself. The law pops up in all sorts of fiction – not just detective stories. For instance, there’s bigamy in Jane Eyre, poaching in Danny the Champion of the World, and the export of wealth in Trustee from the Toolroom. None of these books is about the law, but the law is an important part of the plot. In Jane Eyre, the bigamous nature of the marriage ceremony with Rochester is why Jane leaves him; in Danny the Champion of the World, the main reason for poaching pheasants is that Danny’s dad doesn’t like the owner of the woods – but it’s still illegal. In Trustee from the Toolroom, Keith Stewart has to travel to the Caribbean to find a fortune in diamonds hidden in the wreck of his sister’s yacht, so that he can use them to pay for his orphaned niece’s education and upbringing. The book isn’t about the diamonds as such – it’s about Keith’s journey and the people he meets along the way. (And there’s a Congreve Clock in it.) However, the fact that it was illegal to convert one’s entire personal wealth to diamonds and emigrate with it to America, hence the need to hide them in the yacht is what starts the whole tale off.

The law is something that touches everyone’s lives, and it is also a means of making people do – or not do – things in a way they wouldn’t otherwise choose. The law, then, produces conflict, and conflict is what makes a story.

However, it’s quite important for authors to know when they’ve just brushed up against a law, because it has pretty big narrative implications. And the law now isn’t always the same as the law then, nor is the law here necessarily the same as the law there.

In Jill Paton Walsh’s The Attenbury Emeralds, Walsh gets it right. A central part of the plot is that Lord Attenbury has just died, and in order to pay the Estate Duty (which is now Inheritance Tax) the new Lord Attenbury has to sell the family’s huge, famous, emerald. Only, someone is saying that the emerald – which has been in the family for generations – isn’t really theirs at all. A key driver for the plot, therefore, is the Estate Duty. And nowadays, it’s a flat rate: 40% tax to be paid on everything over £325,000 of a person’s estate when they die. However, The Attenbury Emeralds is set in 1951, and the Estate Tax then was a progressive tax, with the top rate (for estates worth over £1,000,000) being a whopping 80% (44% on agricultural property). This kind of tax would certainly induce the financial panic required to make the book exciting: if the emerald isn’t located (or proved to be the right one) and sold, then Lord Attenbury will have to sell his ancestral home.

On the other hand, not every author gets it right. Sometimes, this is probably due to differences in culture between the author and the book’s setting. A Deadly Affair is set in 18th-century England – in 1763. A major plot point is a marriage which takes place in an inn bedroom. I suspect that the Australian author doesn’t realise that in England, it isn’t legal to get married in anything other than premises licensed for that purpose. So that important wedding wouldn’t have been a wedding at all… And, to add insult to injury, the statute that introduced regulations regarding where weddings could take place was the Marriage Act 1753. So if she’d set the book a mere eleven years earlier, she would have got away with it!

Other times, it seems to be more a result of assuming that something is illegal when it isn’t. In Frozen Charlotte, a woman walks into an Accident and Emergency department holding a baby that is not just dead, but mummified. It turns out that the baby was the result of a clandestine surrogacy arrangment, involving a home birth supervised by an unqualified midwife, and so forth. However, the author didn’t seem to realise that surrogacy arrangements are not, in fact, illegal. The characters’ motivations – and thus the story – really only make sense if surrogacy isn’t legal, requiring all the secrecy and complicated (illegal) arrangements made by the couple. Once you know that surrogacy is legal, the story collapses because the characters’ motivations just don’t make sense. Why do something a complicated and illegal way if there’s an easier, legal, way to do it?

So the law presents both opportunities and pitfalls for the author – it can form the basis of a whole narrative, or it can destroy a plot. Either way, you can’t afford to ignore it.

Lawyers in Literature

Last year, I went to a lecture by a chap who’d come down from a Scottish university to talk about law and literature – there is actually a Law and Literature movement – and really, by the end of the lecture, what I mostly wanted to say to him was, “You jammy devil, you, you ought to try looking at the rep pharmacists have in literature.”

As a pharmacist, I do tend to take notice of whenever there’s a pharmacist character on TV, in a film or in a book. And I’m not going to talk about it here. It’s just too painful.

Lawyers, on the other hand, get a really good press.

In Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2 (Act 4, Scene 2), Dick says: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”

How is this a good press? Well, think about it… Lawyers as a class have obviously made enough of a difference either to Dick personally or society in general for him to want to kill them all. He may not like them (to put it mildly) but he isn’t indifferent. In fact, they arouse such strong feelings that he is advocating wholesale extermination.

At the other end of the scale, in the film version of John Grisham’s The Firm, the lawyers are the good guys (well, good guy) and the bad guys. New law graduate Mitch McDeere goes up against a whole firm of lawyers (Bendini, Lambert and Locke) who are in the pay of the Mob – and he wins. He comes up with a scheme to have all the lawyers at the firm indicted for mail fraud, and he says to the FBI agent who had wanted him to steal the firm’s files so that the FBI could arrest the firm’s mobster clients, that the Mob’s lawyers are a legitimate and valuable target: “Without the firm, the only way the Moroltos can launder money is in a washing machine.”

On one side, the firm are helping the Mafia get away with their crimes; on the other, Mitch McDeere brings down the lawyers in order to bring down the Mob. In The Firm, the mobsters aren’t the true villains – they are just doing what mobsters do. The real villains of the piece are the lawyers of Bendini, Lambert and Locke, who have not only committed crimes but have betrayed the ideals of their profession and, by extension, the whole of society which relies on the rule of law for its cohesion and stability. Lawyers are supposed to be guides and guardians of the law, and the lawyers of Bendini, Lambert and Locke betrayed this duty too. Mitch McDeere, on the other hand, is the hero who goes up against the monster, and defeats it – but at great personal cost. He has defended the law (and, admittedly, himself), but at the cost of his career as a highly-paid tax lawyer. At the end of the film, he is off back to Boston to set up his own firm, because he knows that after the collapse of Bendini, Lambert and Locke, no other law firm will have him.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird we see the lawyer from another angle. Scout Finch’s father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer who agrees to defend a poor black man (Tom Robinson) against a rape accusation by a white woman and her father. Atticus proves that the woman and her father were lying, and the woman was not raped – in fact, she was the one making the sexual advances. However, despite Atticus’s efforts, the jury convicts Tom. Here again, the lawyer is the hero – the champion of justice and defender of the weak and downtrodden. When the jury gives its ‘guilty’ verdict, in defiance of the evidence, we feel betrayed, not only on behalf of Tom (who is probably going to be hanged), but on behalf of Atticus. Atticus, here, is the Champion of Good, and the courtroom is his battleground. Good should triumph over Evil – but this time, Evil (in the persons of the bigoted jury) wins.

So in literature, there are plenty of lawyers. Sometimes they’re heroes and sometimes they’re villains, but they are almost never neutral. As a class, lawyers hold power: the power to defend or the power to hurt, but always the power to effect change – and when it comes to having a good press, what could be better than that?