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During self-quarantine, learn a foreign language without leaving the house

UPDATED: Mon., April 6, 2020

Now is a great time to learn a foreign language at home. (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
Now is a great time to learn a foreign language at home. (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
By Andrea Sachs Washington Post

Je suis un chat.

Clearly, I am not a cat, but to fill my self-quarantined time, I have been repeating this French phrase over and over again. With the encouragement of Duolingo, a foreign language app, I also have been Paul and un chien (a dog). To learn another country’s language in these circumstances, I had to accept the new reality.

At this point in time, we have no idea when we will be able to travel abroad again. But we don’t need to be idle. We can keep our travel muscles limber with foreign language classes. Then, once we can roam the globe again, we can gleefully jump right into conversations with locals – and their pets.

Linguist experts and educators say the best way to learn a new language is to converse directly with the instructor or native speaker ideally in the same physical space. However, with schools and foreign language centers closed, we have to take our lessons indoors, online and in isolation. In response, a few organizations, such as the International Center for Language Studies and the Global Language Network have shifted their in-person classes to virtual “synchronous classrooms.” For this arrangement, students and teachers confer via Skype, Zoom or another similar computer interface platform.

“When it comes to learning a language, nothing compares to the in-person experience,” said Andrew Brown, founder and executive director of the Global Language Network, a nonprofit. “However, the circumstances of the global pandemic have forced us in a corner, and we are making the best of a challenging situation.”

If your schedule, budget or unruly nest of hair prevents you from pursuing a course of this semipublic nature, try tapping into the trove of resources and tools online. Angelika Kraemer, director of the Language Resource Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, recommends the free programs associated with libraries such as Mango Languages. Kraemer also suggests BBC Languages, which is run by the British public broadcasting company. The multimedia lessons cover about 40 languages, and, depending on the country, the instruction might include sports videos, crossword puzzles, children’s programming and street slang.

For similarly creative lessons, Per Urlaub, associate dean of the Language School at Middlebury College in Vermont, directs aspiring speakers to the Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning at the University of Texas, one of 16 national centers funded by the Education Department. The site posts materials for more than 20 languages, including podcasts in Mandarin, slam poetry in Portuguese and more than three decades of recordings of Czech Moravians living in Texas. Urlaub also recommends foreign publications such as France’s Le Monde and Italy’s La Repubblica as a means to improve reading skills and gain a different perspective of world events.

“If I were hunkered down, I would focus on reading proficiency,” he said. “Reading skills come first and go last.”

The pandemic has driven many people into the arms of Netflix. The marathon watch-fests are escape hatches, but they also can have educational value. Language Learning with Netflix is a free extension available through the Google Chrome web store that features a catalog of international movie and TV series, including 306 offerings in Spanish, 132 in Mandarin, 39 in German and 18 in Hindi. In addition to hearing dialogue in the native tongue, you can read subtitles in two languages, which helps with translation, and look up words in a pop-up dictionary, among other tools.

“You don’t interact with the language in a natural way, but you can improve your listening comprehension skills and vocabulary,” Urlaub said. “But you won’t gain oral fluency.”

Apps also have stepped into this vacuum and are ideal for people ready to cut their apron strings with Google Translate. But educators warn users to approach the programs with realistic expectations.

“Apps give people who have not had a lot of exposure to the language the illusion that they have learned quite a lot,” Urlaub said. “Instead of engaging with real people, we are interacting with a static system.” However, Urlaub admits he has used Duolingo to refresh his French and, “In a weird way, it’s fun.”

During my own self-quarantine, I hoped to awaken my dormant French. I asked the college professors for advice on navigating the app landscape. Kraemer said to look at the app developers: Are they professionals familiar with the process of learning a new language or a “tech whiz sitting in an office”? She also approves of apps that resemble video games with competitive goals, ascending levels of success and an ego-boosting award system.

“The game aspect of unlocking the next badge keeps you going back for more,” she said. Other worthwhile attributes: a visually appealing design and lessons organized in digestible time segments. “It is easier to sit down for 10 or 30 minutes every so often,” she said.

I started with Duolingo. Michaela Kron, a company spokeswoman, said the app boasts 30 million active monthly users and recorded a 91% rise in participants in the United States between the weeks of March 9 and March 16. (The app is free, but the upgraded ad-free version ranges from $6.99 per month to $12.99 per month depending on the plan.)

I chose a goal of 10 minutes per day and took a placement test that kicked me back to my first day of French high school class. I cycled through lessons that tested me on a handful of pre-K words such as cat, dog, horse, man and woman in a variety of challenges such as translating phrases, speaking a word into my phone’s microphone and typing a phrase uttered in French.

I was advancing fast, with the cartoon characters cheering me on, but slid backward several times for, say, forgetting the feminine and masculine articles of pizza and croissant. I earned gems that I could spend in the Duolingo store and lost and gained hearts that I needed to perform the exercises.

I became so driven to excel in Basics 1 that, two hours later, I was still sitting in the same spot, pounding “A cat is eating a croissant” into my phone. Kron later warned me students should stick to their goal time, or they could sabotage their memory retention and, in my case, get a little obsessed. If I stick with Duolingo, the lessons will grow more difficult, plus I can expand my curriculum with features such as Duolingo Stories and the Duolingo French podcast. In addition, once we are allowed to leave our homes, I can meet up with other members at community events – maybe over une pizza and un croissant. (Nailed it.)

Babbel, which has noticed a more than 50% jump in subscriptions since the virus outbreak, lets people sample goods with its free preview lesson; the entire learning package costs $6 to $13 a month (and is currently free for U.S. students). The courses for the Newcomer and Beginner I levels cover vocabulary and phrases that any traveler would be grateful to have on the tip of the tongue such as the words for directions, greetings, clothing items and telling time – plus the odd profanity.

The challenges are similar to Duo’s – translation, speaking, listening – but the degree of difficulty was higher, and the initial lessons seemed more relevant to real life. The 150 linguists and teachers in charge of creating Babbel’s content and methodology can really work a virtual classroom.

After three sections, I could sense a solid foundation of French taking shape. When I shut down my phone that night, I felt as if I could wake up in Paris and ask a local for directions to a clothing store. In the shop, I could inquire about a sweater or pair of shoes. And if the store didn’t have my size, I could let the curses fly.

Founded in 1992, Rosetta Stone is part of my early travel memories; the mustard-yellow kiosks selling the boxed language programs were as much an airport staple as Hudson News and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. The retail arm is gone, and the app has taken up the mantle. The company has a free three-day trial before you have to start paying from $36 for three months to $199 for a lifetime subscription with unlimited access to all of the languages.

During the pandemic, students can access the resource free. I appreciated the strict 30-minute increment. I chose the travel-theme series and spent the next half-hour absorbing a slow build of information, from singular nouns to plural, with new verbs introduced. First, everyone was eating and drinking; then they were running, reading and writing.

For English speakers, Lirica offers only Spanish lessons at the moment but plans to expand this year. The 3-year-old company was founded by Paul Custance, a former financial director at Sony Music UK, a connection that makes sense when you realize that the lesson plan is based on international hits – specifically, 44 songs curated by linguists and performed by artists such as Maluma, Enrique Iglesias and Lila Downs.

“Repetition is a necessary part of learning vocabulary and constructs in a foreign language,” Custance said. “Just think of a song you like, and part of it will likely play in your head. When language elements are accompanied by a catchy tune, there is a higher chance you will emotionally engage with them and, crucially, remember them.”

The app comes with two to three free tunes per level; after you use up your pass, the program costs $8 for one month or $25 for a year. (The company is offering free monthly subscriptions to U.S. schools.) Nicky Jam’s “Hasta el Amanecer,” an award-winning reggaeton song, was queued up first. The program uses the lyrics as a vehicle to teach grammar and vocabulary words and phrases, as well as sharpen listening and comprehension skills.

“What do we know so far?” Lirica asked me. “Nicky is flirting with a girl,” I answered correctly.

Many of the words alone are useful but strung together – well, it depends on the setting. I will probably have to save “Ven dale ahi, ahi, moviendo todo eso pa’ mi,” or “Come on, come on, move it all for me,” for a conversation with a furniture moving company – or a night in a Latin American dance club.

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