It’s all about the narrative…

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Stop Guilting Me, Duo!

Some of those #quarantinegoals just didn’t materialize 😦

How do we know?

(As I explained in a previous post, I have recently discovered the Duolingo phenomenon.  It worked well in basic Arabic, but I wondered how it would go with a language I knew better. I decided to try out the Spanish version of the program, but I found that I did not really speak Spanish as well as I had thought. This realization did not make it easier for me to fill in the gaps of my knowledge. I realized that the very words “knowing a language” are problematic and at times fraught.)

This experience with Duolingo really evoked empathy for English learners,  especially the frustration and disappointment generated by the gap between my sense of my proficiency and the level ascribed by  an objective metric.   I also kept in mind that my language learning had been particularly low stakes, and that I had deliberately chosen a language in which I had lower emotional investment.  How much more intense would those feelings be if the lessons were in public, if the language learning were necessary to my career or my social status, if my identity had been more intertwined with my language prowess?

It also raised more specific questions about different definitions of language proficiency.  I wondered what different English learners meant when they talked about “knowing English”  — by what criteria they judged their current language ability, and also how they measured their learning objectives.

This summer I had chance to observe two  students who presented an interesting comparison in how they answered these questions.

They came from a group of learners I don’t often interact with very much — adult visitors.  Most of the adults I have taught have been immigrants to Canada, but the summer program hosts people who have a clear plan to return to their country — sojourners as opposed to settlers.  They may have a polite interest in Canadian customs and regional language, but this information is not a necessity to them.  They want a kind of English knowledge that they can apply directly to their lives back home.

So knowing the English language can have quite a different meaning to them than it does to us, or to newcomers to the country.  There’s also the matter of whether they want to expand the way that they know the language, or just increase their knowledge within the context of what they already have.

The two students were both middle aged men established in careers where English was part of the landscape. They came from the same language background — although not the same country.

The two men had a similar definition of learning English.  They worked within English medium, reading and writing English academic articles and attending conferences where English was the language of communication.  They functioned well within this environment, yet there were limits to their English proficiency: both of them relied on translation services, for reading English articles and for publishing their own work in English.

One student explained this clearly at his assessment interview.  He was comfortable with the use of the translation services, so he did not feel the need to improve his reading and writing in English.  However, he needed to function in oral English when he defended his work at conferences, so he chose courses that helped him improve his spoken production.

The other student was less conscious of his linguistic profile.  He ended up in the Academic English class, where he was responsible for researching and completing a paper in English.

He relied on online translation services when composing his paper.  The instructor asked him to write in his own words, as the course goal was for the students to produce authentic and original English prose.  However, even when she confronted him with evidence that the work was not his own, he failed to understand why that was a problem.  He attempted to re-write, but his use of the translation service was so ingrained in his use of English that he was unable to function without it.

The instructor felt frustrated, as an understanding of academic integrity was a key objective of the course.  She struggled over whether to withhold his completion certificate. The student remained relatively sanguine.  He continued with the class and seemed to enjoy the social aspects.  However the instructor asked herself how much he had actually benefited from his eight weeks with us.

The more I think about it, the more I think that the first student was the outlier, unusually self-aware and unusually skilled at navigating the language learning world.  Most of us are more like the second student, unable to examine our language knowledge critically, and perhaps not very interested in doing so.  There’s a lot of ego tied up there, and an amount of sunk cost fallacy: it takes a certain level of intellectual maturity to want to change, as I found out in my own Duolingo adventures.

What does this mean to us as educators?  Well, we’ve all figured out how to meet the needs of the Student A types; and they’ve figured out how to derive the maximum benefit from our lessons.  The Student Bs, though, it’s a different matter.  Every teacher, consciously or unconsciously, is engaged in negotiating a balance:  How much do we confront students with evidence of the gaps in their language learning; how much do we play to their strengths?  When do we guide them further along the paths they have already travelled confidently?  When do we invite them to explore the language areas they have ignored or avoided?

Of course the answer’s going to be different, from class to class, from teacher to teacher, but I feel that I’ll me making those choices from a place of greater understanding now. Adéu i gràcies, Duo!




Duolingo Real Time Update 3.0

I have earned another badge.

So do you speak Latin now?

Well of course not, unless the conversation turns to parrots,













or the correct verb to collocate with “thunderbolt.”

And of course, there’s always something about owls 🙂

As it’s highly unlikely that my conversational Latin will ever be put to the test, I am not too worried.

This was an interesting course because it was still in Beta testing.  This meant that there was space to report inaccuracies and discuss the linguistic principles guiding the curriculum.

There was a spirited back and forth over whether the “h” should be sounded in the listening tasks, but the most heated conversation related to different branches of the English language.

For one of the questions (Illa se male habet), the only  answer accepted by the site was “She feels poorly,” a usage that does not exist in North American English. I challenged this, which admitted me into the comment thread on the topic, and sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole. The thread extended for several pages (and comments are still being posted as I write). Opinions ranged from “If North Americans become sufficiently educated, they will eventually be able to speak British English,” to “The question is stupid because nobody talks like that.”

There was a more nuanced exchange about accuracy in translation — was “She feels poorly” better than “She does not feel well” because the original Latin sentence did not contain a negative particle? I would have liked to see more of this. However, it was almost completely drowned out by the noise of people telling other people, often incoherently, that those other people could not speak English.

Anyhow, when I comment on Duolingo, the symbols for all my completed languages appear after my name. As fraudulent as these claims are, it’s kind of nice to be recognized as a certified expert in Arabic, Latin, and Spanish.


Duolingo Real Time Update 2.0

I have successfully completed the Duolingo Arabic course.

Question: So can you speak Arabic now?

Answer:  Hahahahahahaha absolutely not: the course ends at beginner level.  However, the language now feels a little more friendly to me, if that makes sense.  I especially liked the phonetic parts — I feel that listening deeply to the different phonemes really helped with my pronunciation.

It’s so easy to learn the letters when the visuals are so clear 🙂

With syntax, I feel that I really internalized the basic sentence structure, and got a good feeling for the possessive pronoun endings, although we didn’t get to the really tough case endings that had plagued me in previous Arabic adventures.  However, for fans of teaching grammar by discovery, I do have to mention that even after putting together endless example sentences, I still can’t figure out the difference between “my weird friend” and “My friend is weird.”  I have a feeling that one meta sentence in English would have cleared that up nicely.

I really didn’t pick up that much more vocabulary, especially in written form.  The reason for this is pretty pragmatic:  the font is too small and dense  to read off the screen of an iphone6, well for me anyway.  When I have to do one of these sentence identification questions, I find myself checking out a couple of the larger letters and then figuring it out through a process of elimination.

but this is so hard to read 😦

Well bye bye, Duolingo.  I’m going to miss you.  I really liked those little pockets of purposeful time.

¿Saber o conocer?* — Duolingo Part 5

Please don’t sue me, Duolingo!

(As I explained in a previous post, I have recently discovered the Duolingo phenomenon.  It worked well in basic Arabic, but I wondered how it would go with a language I knew better. I decided to try out the Spanish version of the program, but I found that I did not really speak Spanish as well as I had thought. This realization did not make it easier for me to fill in the gaps of my knowledge.)

So yes, I know Spanish, the way you know an old friend.  I know that it is musical and tinged with Arabic, especially at the higher registers.  I know that sentences are long and beautiful, and that comma splices are not seen in a negative light.  I know that many words have more than one meaning, especially verbs.  I know that Italian and Spanish speakers can usually understand each other, but I also know when a Spanish speaker meets a person from a different Latin country, they will modify their speech to make it more standard.  I know that Spanish vocabulary can vary greatly from region to region, especially when it refers to food, clothing, and animal names — the most important things in life.

So yes, I know Spanish, but can I use Spanish? Well, if we continue the old friend analogy, Spanish is kind of the old friend you still see on Facebook.  You like the idea of the person, and you know a lot about them, but if you actually bumped into them on the street, you would have no mechanism for initiating a conversation.  So that’s what Spanish is to me: a collection of information with no working mechanism.  I realize that this is not very useful, but I had just assumed that my way of knowing Spanish was the same as everyone else’s; I only discovered it wasn’t when I was forced to confront the gaps in my proficiency.

I wondered how I could apply this epiphany to the language learners at our summer program.

*See?  Clearly Duolingo worked.

Duolingo Story Real Time Update

I have conquered Duolingo Spanish.

Question: So do you speak Spanish now?

Answer: Hahaha no. In fact, as this exercise was solitary and almost exclusively passive, it mainly reinforced my existing language habits. I was having fun by the end though, especially after I discovered this:

See that little white key inside the magenta rectangle? It helps you accelerate through the lessons by passing a test on the material. I’m not sure whether that defeated the purpose of the whole thing, but it made me a lot happier.

Exploring Spanish with Owls* — Duolingo Part 4

Please don’t sue me, Duolingo!

(As I explained in a previous post, I have recently discovered the Duolingo phenomenon.  It worked well in basic Arabic, but I wondered how it would go with a language I knew better. I decided to try out the Spanish version of the program, but I found that I did not really speak Spanish as well as I had thought.)



Over the course of writing this series — and compulsively Duolingoing — I’ve developed an appreciation for the program from a pedagogical point of view.

The interface is appealing, and there’s a slight hint of video-game style kinetic challenge–try rearranging the words in a sentence you have constructed –that is definitely fun and probably works at some neuroscience level. The repetitive exercises are painless time-fillers, but at the same time they are instilling language knowledge at an almost subliminal level.  I sometimes want to applaud the cleverness with which the program teaches a point about syntax or differentiates between two similar vocabulary items.

The pacing is good and the program has effective ways to check comprehension.  When students get a question wrong, the same question reappears at the end of the exercise. Make too many mistakes and you will lose your heart points and thus be forced to go through a remedial review round.  I may not like this when it happens to me,  but I can’t deny that it’s effective.

But still, I find myself chafing against it. I can’t help pinning my sense of my proficiency to the number of Spanish words I could translate into English.

The lessons feel easy to me because I recognize most of the vocabulary,

but that doesn’t mean I always get the answer right.  Sometimes this is because of a genuine gap in my knowledge, but often the mistake stems from inattention.

Interestingly, I don’t make many mistakes when I am doing the Arabic lessons, and those that I do make are very rarely careless ones.

And even though I’m feeling frustrated, I force myself to move through the scheduled lessons.  I’m not sure how much I’m actually learning, but I somehow feel compelled to continue the process.I’m stuck in lower intermediate DL land and it’s become an obsession. When I finish one lesson, I compulsively click through to the next, only released when my battery dies (It’s an iphone, so that’s a mercifully short time) or when — shame of shame –I run out of hearts because I have made too many mistakes.


I turn on dl first when I wake up in the morning (sorry, fb). Like some kind of Flying Dutch-person, I’m stuck in this loop trying to catch up with the level I think I should be.

This has made me re-think language learning and what it means when we say we know a language.


*please don’t sue me, David Sedaris!




Si si puede (kinda) –Duolingo Part 3

(As I explained in a previous post, I have recently discovered the Duolingo phenomenon.  It worked well in basic Arabic, but I wondered how it would go with a language I knew better. I decided to try out the Spanish version of the program)


So I took the Duolingo placement test and did, umm,  not as well as I expected.  It was partly because I didn’t recognize the word buho. (It means “owl,” which seems obvious after the fact: Duo is a buho.  You’re welcome: that should help you skip forward a few levels should you also decide to  engage in Duolingo).

But to be honest, it wasn’t only about that.  I have a huge passive vocabulary, but it wasn’t exactly hard-earned.  Knowing one Romance language gives you an immediate portal into a huge shared lexicon.  But that does not mean that I can pinpoint the exact contextual function of a Spanish phrase. I can grasp the literal meaning of “a lo mejor,” but  it never occurred to me that I could use those words to convey “perhaps.” If I were asked to write a sentence  about something perhaps happening I would have to  resort to Google.

In fact, when summoning the words for my own writing, I am at a loss.  My passive vocabulary is just that, passive. All these Latinate roots are lying around in a big heap, the different languages intertwined like snakes in a pit.  Usually when I need a word, a root will come to mind, but is it Spanish?  is it French? is it Italian? did I just make it up? Who knows?  And because I am a language perfectionist, I cannot just make a guess and brazen it out.  Somehow using an Italian word instead of a Spanish one would be worse than not giving an answer at all.

Similarly, I can parse Spanish sentences without strain, and I remember most of the grammar rules, but the task of creating a sentence that doesn’t follow English syntactical patterns is beyond me. With listening and speaking, I can manage when things are slowed down and I understand the context, but I’m not really able to create meaning.

What that means is that when Duolingo asks me to write a paragraph or record even a sentence of my own, I am lost.  I fall back on the simplest possible vocabulary, phrases I memorized in high school.  I doesn’t make for a very interesting answer: nobody would be particularly excited to find out that on the weekend I ate dinner and woke up late.

In other words, I’m functioning at a high basic, low intermediate level in most areas, despite my low advanced passive vocabulary.  I know this intellectually, but my ego is still piqued. My relationship with Duolingo, so harmonious on the Arabic channel, has become a little strained…

Choose Your Own Emotional Journey — Duolingo Part 2

(As I explained in a previous post, I have recently discovered the Duolingo phenomenon.  It worked well in basic Arabic, but I wondered how things would go with a language I knew better. )

So I embarked on Duolingo in Spanish as well.

Why Spanish?

There’s a positive reason:  I had been working with a group of students from Mexico.  They were so new to English that they couldn’t integrate well into our basic level class.  I was sitting with them in the classroom, explaining vocabulary that other students were already comfortable with.  There was a lot of paraphrasing and body language, but often I would resort to Spanish, at first through Google Translate, and then as I grew more confident, drawing on what I remembered from school.  I think the students appreciated my willingness to make myself vulnerable at a time when they felt so unmoored.  The experience was unexpectedly fruitful. It was gratifying to see the students become linguistically independent in just a few days, but I realized that I was also having fun.  It had been a long time since I had been able to use another language in such a playful, low stakes fashion.

But it was also about what Spanish wasn’t.  My other two possible languages — Italian and French — carried with them complex narratives.

My Italian is buried deep in my childhood — a leftover from a year I spent in Perugia.  That period of my life was a challenging one, but also one of opportunity: much of who I am today is the result of that time.  My ltalian is also complicated — the lexicon of a ten year old with very little grammar or metalinguistic knowledge –  I recently had to use Google to figure out present perfect agreement patterns — I cannot confidently write a sentence; and yet, at times, the words issue forth unsummoned, idiomatic and fluent, from some hidden well.  It’s the only language besides English that I pronounce intuitively.

I feel protective of this  linguistic remnant. I worry that  formal study of the language would yield information in conflict with the variant I learned in my village school, that it would make my own Italian feel less real. And less rationally, I fear that the rigour of a systematic language learning mechanism would dispel my elusive memories the way direct sunlight banishes a will of the wisp.

I am content with my Italian knowledge the way it is —- where so much of my language use is self-conscious and over-intellectualized, the little moments of Italian fluency feel like a gift.  Mastering the adult version of my childhood language would offer me little.

My relationship with French is even more fraught.  It’s the language  of young adult me, the broody girl who fell in love with French literature and later on graduated to critical theory.  A certain form of early twentieth century French literature was internalized to such an extent that I read it as easily as English, to the point that the inflections of my English prose developed Gallic affectations. And yet — faced with contemporary French literature, I do less well.  I remember hitting a wall with the idiomatic language of Le Scaphandre et le Papillon.   Even with Kim Thuy’s  more straightforward prose, I realized that I did not understand as fully as I  thought I did.  

Then there’s the oral language — like many Anglo Canadians I am totally intimidated by spoken French.  Who knows how the cocktail of pedagogical, phonological, and political forces swirled together, but they have left me linguistically paralyzed.  I can understand CBC grade spoken French well enough, but I can produce, well, basically nothing.  Anything more than bonjour, and I feel physically unable to form the sounds. For instance, if I want to talk about the NGO Medecins sans Frontieres, I have to shorten it to “MSF” or resort to “Doctors without Borders.” Sometimes, I will avoid whole conversations just to skirt that awkward moment.

Please don’t sue me, DuoLingo!

So yes, there’s a lot going on there, but a little green owl ain’t gonna fix it.  I’m happy to keep up with the reading, and stretch my listening from time to time. I suppose it’s possible that the rest of the language might be unlocked by some dramatic unforeseen event, but for now it feels as if that ship has sailed.

The  narrative attached to my Spanish learning is much less involved.  I studied it in school, and did indeed win the  Spanish prize, even though the classes were located in a different building from my school and scheduling conflicts frequently prevented me from  getting to class —  not my fault: it was  an alternative school thing.  Since then, the language has been a fairly constant feature in the background of my life as many of the people I know speak Spanish well.  I am pleasantly aware of the language, but it is not something I feel invested in. No part of my persona depends on my ability to perform well in the language.

So Spanish seemed safest, the least …. laden.

I switched my Duolingo settings to Spanish and took the placement test…

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