Parlez vous Francais?

Unfortunately, I do not parle Francais. I got through my GSCE at school, and proceeded to never use it again. What with work and various things, my husband and I haven’t had a holiday since 2006 (going to Aigues-Mortes as van-driver for the UK team for Battle of the Nations 2013 does not count as a holiday), so the chances to use any foreign languages have been pretty limited.

But a couple of months ago, in the throes of applying for legal vacation work and getting nothing but flat rejections, I decided I wanted to do something that was just for me.

So I decided to revive my French (and, while I was at it, German too). It seemed like a good idea at the time. Not only is it rather a pity to let language skills waste away, but an ability to speak at least reasonably intelligible French (or any other language except, possibly, Klingon) looks good on a CV.

So I went back to Duolingo, which I encountered last year. It’s the brainchild of Luis von Ahn, who is the person who invented those nasty Captcha things and now feels guilty about it (so he invented ReCaptcha so that while we’re proving we’re human, we’re also digitising books and so on). Von Ahn’s particular hobby-horse is human computing: it’s sort of like the thing with the thousand monkeys and the typewriters, and if you leave them long enough they’ll produce the complete works of Shakespeare. Only rather more directed.

His idea is that:

a) If people are going to do something anyway, it ought to be made useful (like, if you are going to spend half an hour on an exercise bike, it ought to be connected up to generate electricity for the gym), and

b) If enough people who are marginally competent do something, you’ll get the right answer through sheer weight of numbers (a bit like Stalin saying that ‘quantity has a quality all its own).

He has turned his attention to language learning, and the fact that when people are learning a language, they like to translate things to practice. And there are another set of people who want to have things translated. Why not bring the two groups together?

And that’s what Duolingo does. It’s free to learn the language, and once you’ve learned enough you can – if you want to – translate articles. And it’s the translation of those articles that pays for the website and enables people to learn the language. It’s probably as near to perpetual motion as you can get.

The intial languages included French and German (and Spanish, which I’m playing with a bit) for English speakers, with the reverse courses (English for French and German speakers). Now, von Ahn has taken the model even further with the Language Incubator which is designed for volunteers to design new language courses to add to the website and its companion app.

Another of von Ahn’s hobby horses is gamification of pretty much anything useful: Duolingo is structured like a game, where you do quizzes to learn, completely with celebratory noises when you get all the way through without losing all your lives, and a sort of wah-wah-wah noise if you lose. It’s surprisingly addictive, and it works. I’d pretty much completely lost all my French, and now I’m back to reading novels (although I’m still struggling with the subjunctive, but then, doesn’t everyone?). It’s not enough to make you fluent, but it’s certainly enough to give you the tools you need to become fluent.

And I’m enjoying it, in a way I never enjoyed languages at school. I’m also discovering a new appreciation for grammar, and I finally understand what cases are for (grammatical, not legal).

In a way, I suppose I should be grateful to all those law firms for their rejections, because without the spirit-crushing despair of thinking that I was never, ever going to get a legal job (with the concomitant mental summation of all the money therefore wasted), I probably wouldn’t have discovered the pleasure of language learning.

On the other hand, I just don’t think I’m that nice a person. The subjunctive is one thing. Gratitude is quite another.


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