Duolingo

Multilingualism in the dispensary

In 2014, there was an incident – which seems to have been blown out of all proportion by the media – in which the dispensing of a prescription written in Welsh was delayed because the pharmacist, evidently not a Welsh-speaker, could not understand it.

Language is not specified as a requirement for a valid prescription, but as a pharmacist, one should never, ever, dispense or check a prescription that one does not fully understand. It’s a pharmacist’s duty to protect the patient by making sure that the prescription is correct – which one can’t do if one can’t understand it. A pharmacist is also held legally responsible for their part in making sure that what the patient gets is the right thing (and that’s the right thing clinically, not just whatever the prescriber ordered), so dispensing without understanding is a bad idea on all fronts.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society therefore advises that pharmacists either use translation services, or “informal networks” – presumably the latter means the technician who speaks Welsh. Development of a “Welsh Toolkit” with useful phrases for healthcare has been suggested, but as far as I can tell, this hasn’t happened yet.

Of course, if you encounter Welsh prescriptions, presumably your patients also speak Welsh. Being able to speak even a few words of Welsh is probably a good idea – even if your language skills are limited to bore da and diolch. Most people appreciate it when someone attempts to speak their language – even if they’re bad at it. It’s not even about communicating useful information: it’s about being polite. If you live or work in Wales, especially in an area where there are a lot of Welsh speakers, learning some of the language is a way to show that your patients matter to you enough for you to make that extra effort to speak their language, instead of expecting them to speak yours. If you do acquire enough of a language to be useful, rather than simply polite, that’s even better.

Fortunately for the English-speaker in Wales who wishes to learn some basic Welsh, there is now a free internet-based course. Duolingo has just released its Welsh for English Speakers course in beta. Anyone can register for a free Duolingo account and start learning. I shouldn’t think they have the translation for “Your prescription is completely illegible in any language” or “Your doctor has prescribed a medicine that was discontinued in 1972” but by the end of it, you’ll have learned enough Welsh to make a good stab at it.

Of course, since we’re a multicultural, multilingual society, Welsh isn’t the only non-English language a healthcare professional might find it useful to learn: there are nearly as many Polish-speakers in the UK as there are Welsh-speakers. Fortunately, Duolingo has a Polish for English-Speakers course too.

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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.

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!